Photos by Gregory Bojorquez
As you approach from the 101 freeway on a cloudy and damp Friday night, the concrete mass of the Piper Tech Center looms in the distance like a fort, the Los Angeles River acting as its moat. Located in an industrial corridor between downtown and Boyle Heights, Piper Tech, one of the city’s general-services buildings, has, in fact, been fortified against the threat of attack ever since a pissed-off city electrician who worked there went on a rampage and killed four employees in 1995. On top of the heavily guarded, four-story building is an imposing tower, home to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division (ASD).
Once you get clearance and are buzzed inside, it’s as if you walked into a military barracks. By no coincidence, Chief William Parker, who admired the Marines, introduced the first helicopters and initiated what would become the LAPD’s Air Support Division. The “Devil Dog” Marines have an English bulldog for their mascot. The ASD, an elite force of 80 officers among L.A.’s 9,300 cops, has “Buzz” the Vulture painted all over the inside of the building: a symbol for the few and the proud.
One captain, 49 pilots, 23 tactical flight officers (TFOs) and seven tower operators make up the ASD’s ranks. These officers walk around wearing green fire-retardant jump suits. They have wings pinned to one side of their chests, a badge on the other, and 9mm semiautomatic guns holstered to their underarms or hips.
You can run but
you can’t Hide:
Air Support Division’s “ghetto bird” is the LAPD’s eye in the sky.
In the roll-call room, pilots and TFOs decompress, file reports, eat their meals, shoot the shit and tell jokes. But tonight the mood is a bit somber. Just hours ago, 30-year-old Officer Ricardo Lizarraga, a three-year veteran with the LAPD, was shot and killed in South Los Angeles by suspected gang member Kenrick William Johnson. It was the first fatal shooting of an on-duty LAPD officer since 1998. The lowest police-to-civilian ratio of any major city in the U.S. just got lower.
A TV in the background is tuned to the History Channel, blaring war footage. A TFO changes the channel as some officers mill about, reviewing taped news reports of the incident; tragedy is the word being used to describe the situation. Every day the ASD flies 20 hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. It’s on call the other four hours. The ASD’s flight-schedule board is filled up with assignments as Watch 4, the busiest of the four watches, gets ready for the 8:15 p.m.–to–6:45 a.m. night shift.
I meet Sergeant Tony De Molina, a young-looking 39-year-old who is the highest-ranking officer on the watch. De Molina was supposed to pilot our fly-along, but now he’s charged with coordinating the pickup of the slain officer’s mother, who lives in the border area of San Diego. Next, I meet Robert “Bob” Harrell, a burly, buzz-cut tactical flight officer in his mid-40s who’s worked four years in the ASD and, before that, 18 years in the South End, Southwest and Newton divisions.
Harrell makes me sign two papers, a release-and-waiver agreement and a passenger-briefing checklist running down things like “If we have to make an emergency landing, DON’T run towards the tail rotor blades, it’ll cut you into two.” Harrell suggests we use the restroom now because we will be in the air for at least two and a half hours. Once we make a quick pit stop, he hands us earplugs and motion-sickness bags.
“Let’s burn some blades!” he barks.
On the way out to the roof, we meet our pilot, 6-foot-3, 230-pound Mel Stevenson, who, with his helmet on, reminds me of that guy from CHiPS. As a senior command pilot, Stevenson has 16 years with the ASD and 24 with the LAPD. During his career, he’s been everything from a street cop to a training officer to undercover vice.
We walk onto the Jay Stephen Hooper Memorial Heliport, the largest law-enforcement rooftop in the U.S. The football-field-size heliport can hold the fleet’s 17 helicopters (10 AS350 B-2 Eurocopter, 5 Bell 206B Jet Ranger III, 1 OH-58C and 1 Bell UH-1H), but there are never that many helicopters parked there at one time; some are getting maintenance at the Van Nuys Airport. These silver-and-blue helicopters are lined up neatly in their marked spaces on the tarmac. “Blue Thunder was filmed here,” Stevenson blurts out, referring to the film starring Roy Scheider that became a TV series. But these aren’t Hollywood-modified helicopters; these are the real things. According to Stevenson, the $2 million AS350 B-2 Eurocopter is “the best medium-sized utility helicopter on the market.” As we strap in behind Harrell and Stevenson, I see the countless engine and flight gauges light up like a Christmas tree. The helicopter holds enough fuel for three hours, but tonight we’ll be up for about two and a half hours.
As the rotors begin to gyrate, I put on my in-flight headset, which is the only way to communicate onboard. I say a quick prayer and hope I don’t throw up. The weather has cleared enough to allow us to take off, rising up alongside the illuminated buildings of downtown Los Angeles.
Tonight, like every night, the purpose of the ASD is to support the cops on the ground who patrol 7,000 miles of city streets and serve 4 million people. Officer safety is job number one. LAPD calls it Air Support to Regular Operations (ASTRO). A normal ASTRO flight consists of a pilot in command and a tactical-flight-officer liaison to the ground units assigned to a particular geographic area. Usually there are three birds up in the air over Los Angeles; one covers the Valley, the other flies over the central part of the city, and the last one handles the south end. On this Friday night, two birds are watching all of Los Angeles. They are like Raider greats Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes, a pair of cornerbacks, each covering one end of the city. Our helicopter, Air 18, draws the central area and the south end, south of the 10 freeway, which is “typically busier.” Air 16 has the Valley.
“I’m mad at the city because we need more officers; we need a massive recruitment drive,” says pilot Mel Stevenson.
Flying 500 feet above Sunset at about 60 knots, normal patrolling speed, we try out the toys on the $2 million Aerostar helicopter. Harrell aims the 40-million-candle-powered “Nightsun” spotlight at the L.A. Weekly building, turning the black-and-white sign as bright as day. Then, we point the Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) scanning system at pedestrians. The FLIR registers the heat from humans as white silhouettes on the screen. The Global Positioning System (GPS)–based Moving Map is a free-floating Thomas Brothers Guide — punch in any address and the computer shows you the helicopter’s position, the destination and the most direct route. Then, there is the “LO/JACK” vehicle-locator system that detects and locates stolen cars. The ASD on the average recovers about 1,000 vehicles yearly.
Even with all this futuristic surveillance technology, conversation in the cabin often revolves around the LAPD’s lack of resources. “Look at this,” says Stevenson, pointing to the never-ending urban sprawl of Los Angeles, “470 square miles and we have fewer than 300 patrol officers on duty!”
Officers on duty might be a priority, but right now we have to be careful not to linger over the Hollywood area, because even though all air crews are reminded to “fly neighborly,” some residents are not happy with the staccato sound of the ASD’s whirling blades over their homes. While these modern police helicopters are quieter than the noisy Bell UH-1H “Huey” Vietnam-era military helicopters, many homeowners complain. The Westside — West L.A., Westwood, and specifically the Hollywood Hills — has the highest rate of noise complaints. Because of the terrain, the helicopters fly close to the same level as the houses in the Hollywood Hills. The ASD self-imposes noise-abatement procedures like flying at a higher altitude (up to 2,000 feet) or a re-route, where the helicopters go around the backside of Griffith Park.
“It’s a balancing act. You want to be sensitive to the noise signature and quality-of-life issues, but we have to weigh that with public-safety issues,” says Sergeant De Molina.
In the late ’60s to early ’70s, Los Angeles participated in an extensive study on helicopter use in public safety, conducted by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The study showed that the presence of police aircraft overhead reduced crime in urban environments and that having officers involved in air support significantly increased the probability of making an arrest.
It also pointed out a deterrent effect of police helicopters: “Once the community becomes aware that a helicopter program exists, there is a tendency to associate every helicopter they see with the police. Thus, even civilian and military helicopters passing over the city become a crime-prevention tool.” According to the study, 89 percent of residents and 93 percent of businesses polled were in favor of helicopter patrols.
The reason most gave for their support was that they felt
more secure and believed crime was reduced by the presence of air units.
We make our way south. Stevenson points out four local news helicopters and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s helicopter in the far distance, all engaged in one of those famous Los Angeles car chases. Stevenson is experienced in such pursuits. The ASD averages 1,500 vehicle pursuits a year. In fact, on February 23, Stevenson was flying above the now-infamous 90-minute police pursuit that ended in Santa Monica when three LAPD officers fired on a white car as it backed slowly toward them, killing the 23-year-old suspect live on TV.
“Sheriff’s Air Unit is a joke,” says Stevenson. He meant it with no disrespect, but with 17,000 flight-hours per year, the ASD flies more hours than any other law-enforcement agency in the U.S. Some Southern California cities, including Pasadena, Glendale, El Monte, Lakewood and Long Beach, operate their own law-enforcement aircraft. For those that don’t, like Santa Monica, Huntington Park, Duarte or any other city in the county, the ASD also covers them when called. “We are the primary airborne unit in the country!” claims Stevenson. He’s right. In fact, you have to go to strife-torn Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the British army does surveillance, to find more helicopter patrols.
We fly low and quick, over another area in conflict: the neighborhoods south of the 10 freeway. This area is now known as South Los Angeles; the “Central” has been erased, but not its madness. We zoom over Vernon, Florence and Slauson avenues and fly over the Lizarraga shooting scene at the intersection of 48th Street and Western Avenue. As we hover there, we see the large perimeter of LAPD cars waiting while detectives finish up on the two-story-apartment crime scene. Harrell and Stevenson point out the alley where the suspect was found hiding in the trunk of an abandoned car. Homeboy had no chance; every possible K-9 unit in the city was on the scene. We then fly over to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Officer Lizarraga died of his injuries.
“I’m mad at the city because we need more officers; we need a massive recruitment drive. Maybe after this [the Lizarraga shooting] they might give us more money for more police,” says Stevenson.
With a crippling budget crisis, it’s doubtful that they’ll get more patrol cars driving the streets soon, but the eye in the sky will continue.
I ask Harrell and Stevenson what they think about the term ghetto bird. Stevenson starts singing “Run, Run, Run From the Ghetto Bird” — Ice Cube’s song from the 1993 album Lethal Injection. The term ghetto bird comes out of the South Los Angeles community to describe the bird they most often see fly over their neighborhood. You’re more likely to see a police helicopter than a red-tailed hawk in South Los Angeles.
In the first verse of “Ghetto Bird,” Ice Cube raps, “Why, oh why must you swoop through the hood like everybody from the hood is up to no good.” Many black Angelenos feel that the LAPD unfairly targets South Los Angeles residents as either suspects or criminals. “We spend more time in South L.A. because more requests are made for us,” says Stevenson, who grew up in South L.A. and graduated from Crenshaw High. “When it’s busy on the ground, it’s busy in the air.” Unlike calls elsewhere in the city, requests in the South are usually “shootings in progress.” Of the 51,000 responses to calls the ASD averages yearly, 20,000 put them on the scene first. So the ghetto bird is first on the scene. Some describe it as the South-Central symphony — gunshots and ghetto birds.
“Attention, officers, you can now go into Watts, the tactical alert is over,” the female police service representative’s (PSR) voice comes over the radio, a message for those officers on the ground. The ASD was originally created in 1956 for traffic control and then slowly began assisting patrol officers in a non-formal way. That all changed during the 1965 Watts riots, when the LAPD deployed helicopters to assist ground officers. The ASD now averages 8,000 assisted arrests per year; 4,000 of those are felonies.
We fly along Imperial Highway over Nickerson Gardens, home turf to the notorious Bounty Hunter Bloods, where the FBI and LAPD recently arrested 41 homeboys in a gang sweep. We then fly over the Imperial Courts, PJ Watts Crips’ turf, and then to Jordan Downs, which the Grape Street Crips claim as their hood. There’s been a full-on war on these streets. Lately, homeboys have been blasting on the “Five-0’s” or “one times” — as the police are called around here — including the Air Support Division. According to the LAPD, from January 2003 until March of 2004 there have been a total of 105 officers who have been fired upon; of those, 40 were in South L.A., including 22 in the LAPD’s Southeast Division, where the projects are located. Why the surge? Some would say that Watts is in worse shape now than in 1965. It was just five years ago that Watts was part of Clinton’s “Poverty Tour.” If you fly overhead or drive through, it’s hard to miss the kids playing in streets that are filthy from the lack of city services. It’s hard to “fight crime” when there is clearly no investment, either financial or otherwise, in South Los Angeles.
A barrage of calls comes over the headphones as we fly over South Los Angeles: “suicide,” “domestic violence,” “suspect with a gun,” “211-robbery,” “missing child,” “stolen car.” The majority of the calls end with “male black or male Hispanic.” After a while, the female PSR’s monotonous voice just becomes part of the background noise, like the blades of the choppers. Up in the ghetto bird, for the first time I really feel like I am living in an urban war zone.
“Code 415 [suspects with a gun]. Drive-by shooting in progress,” cries out the PSR voice over the radio. “Male black and male Hispanic, one in a black car and another in a white van.”
“Go, go, go!” screams Harrell to Stevenson, and we’re off, swooping down over South Los Angeles like a bad roller-coaster ride, our bodies gyrating at 120-knot speed.
“White van, west on Jefferson,” exclaims the PSR.
“There! Over the park,” Harrell points while looking through his gyroscope-stabilized binoculars. He reaches for the toggle switch and skims the streets below with the “Nightsun” searchlight and locks on the white van. The south-side neighborhood resembles a huge labyrinth as black-and-whites flashing their red and blue lights emerge from everywhere to pursue the van. Eleven patrol cars swarm the scene, bringing the van to a halt. Officers quickly draw their handguns and shotguns as they stand behind the doors of their squad cars. Tonight is extra-tense, and no one is taking any chances, due to the shooting death of Officer Lizarraga earlier in the day, near these same streets.
“Good job, Bob,” says Stevenson as we orbit above the scene like a hawk over its prey.
“Code 4 [everything’s okay]. Thanks, airship,” report the ground units.
Flying among the clouds, Stevenson turns back and asks, “Are you okay?” Yes, I nod, but two and a half hours in, my body is beginning to feel the stress of the dives, turns and rotations.
As we head back to the heliport, I remember Sergeant De Molina telling me that he, along with three other ASD officers, all California National Guard reserves, will replace regular Army forces in Iraq for a one-year stint. I feel for him, but like the Navy surgeons who prepared at nearby “Killer” King-Drew Medical Center and County USC before they were sent to Afghanistan, he’s had the best training. Sadly, we’ve lost more Angelenos to violence in these streets than soldiers in the deserts of Iraq.