When law enforcement helicopters circle over neighborhoods emitting otherworldly light beams at night and sometimes unintelligible (to casual listeners) loud speaker messages, citizens may naturally start to worry. What’s going on in our neighborhood? Is there a safety risk? At the very least, the unnerving drone of a circling helicopter can seem like a mosquito buzzing your ear when you’re trying to sleep.
But, within the law enforcement community, helicopters are considered a force multiplier, an important tool in the fight against crime, the search for missing people, and a whole host of other public safety issues. One helicopter can have as much effect as 8 to 10 police officers on the ground, especially when police are searching for someone. In situations where an elderly person with dementia or a child wanders away from home and cannot be found, a bird’s-eye view of the entire neighborhood makes the helicopter vital. By broadcasting the description of the missing person over the helicopter’s public address system, the neighborhood is enlisted to help with the search. Commonly, when the missing person is a child, he or she will focus on the helicopter, hear the broadcast, and run home. If the missing person has dementia, we are frequently aided by neighbors who hear the broadcast, see the missing person, and call the police. You could even consider community assistance as another type of force multiplier resulting in faster response, thus less anguish for the missing person’s loved ones.
In more dangerous situations, such as a wanted suspect using a neighborhood to hide from the police, helicopters increase the safety level for residents and police officers. Even if a suspect is hiding in heavy foliage or a tight space, they have a hard time evading the infrared technology used by the helicopter crew. Infrared night vision systems sense radiated heat, such as from our bodies, thereby allowing us to see much more than is visible to the naked eye. The helicopter uses an onboard camera and downlink to send live video to each sergeant’s patrol car, meaning they can instantaneously see on their in-car computers the same images pilots do. Through this technological support from the helicopter, officers on the ground gain the tactical advantage. Without it, the hidden suspect has the advantage. In 2005, the helicopter crew used the infrared technology and their aerial view to locate 182 felony suspects, and assisted in the apprehension of an additional 386 felony suspects. Especially in the case of vehicle pursuits, helicopters play a key role by safely following fleeing vehicles enabling ground units to back off when it’s safer to do so.
Studies show that the faster police units arrive on scene, the higher the likelihood for making an apprehension. According to Sergeant Kirk Campbell, pilot and supervisor of the Sacramento Police Department Air Unit, the police helicopter responded to 5,282 events in 2005 with an average response time of 1.8 minutes. Comparatively, patrol cars averaged about 8.5 minutes in the same period. In more than 500 instances, the helicopter crew was able to directly reduce the number of patrol cars needed on the ground, freeing those officers to handle other calls. Our helicopter assisted in 90 vehicle pursuits and 142 foot pursuits in 2005. It also handled 406 events without ground units, freeing up 512 patrol cars.
Police helicopters do more than look for missing persons and suspects, they also patrol the levees during periods of heavy rain. In the winter when our rivers rise, and potential flooding becomes a public safety concern, the Sacramento Police Department’s helicopters are in the air working in partnership with the other city departments to patrol the levees. Again, one helicopter is equivalent to many people on the ground. Police helicopters send pictures directly through the downlink to the emergency operations center, where officials from the Department of Utilities use this real-time information on levee conditions to make timely decisions and allocate resources.
We’ve talked about the positive aspects of our police helicopter, but what about all the noise they make and their unnerving presence over your neighborhood especially in the middle of the night?
First, it’s helpful to know that numerous public safety agencies are now flying helicopters in the sky above our metropolitan area. That means more activity in the sky and more noise. The ones you may see include the Sacramento Police Department, Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, Sacramento Metro Fire Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the California Department of Forestry. From the ground it’s not always easy to identify them, but when they fly low enough, you can usually tell which helicopter it is. Since the Police and Sheriff helicopters assist each other’s agencies, on occasion you may see either agency whether or not you live in the city or county.
The Police Department’s pilots try to minimize disruption to neighborhoods unless there is a call for service. When not on a call, pilots try to fly at a higher altitude and over less populated areas such as industrial parks. The later it gets at night, the higher the pilot flies when not in a response mode. Most residents that complain about our helicopter are satisfied once they hear the reason the helicopter was in their area. But when discussing the occasional noise complaint with angry citizens, Sgt. Campbell asks them to put themselves in the place of the victim. When we’re awakened at night by the sound and lights of a helicopter, it can understandably be annoying and even scary as we wonder what’s happening and why it sometimes seems to take so long to resolve. But to a family awakened by an intruder, or worse, gunshots near or in their home, the quick presence of the helicopter and its searchlights turning night into day would be very welcome. That family would want to know that all available resources were being used in that terrifying situation. For victims, each minute of waiting can seem like an eternity, so the faster response by the helicopter is crucial. Because of the helicopter, the suspect suddenly finds himself focusing on fleeing the area rather than committing the crime.
So, armed with more understanding about the vital role law enforcement helicopters play, what should you do if one of our helicopters is circling over your neighborhood? Sgt. Campbell has these recommendations. On most missing person searches, the PA system will be used making the reason for the helicopter evident. In the case of suspect searches, even though every one does not involve somebody who is really a threat, it’s probably best to go inside and secure your home when a police helicopter is circling especially if you see police canines conducting a search or a lot of patrol cars in your neighborhood. Sgt. Campbell does advise people to call 911 if they hear the helicopter and then see something suspicious.
And, of course, your patience when we’re over your neighborhood is always appreciated.