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Sky Cops : Hovering at 500 Feet, Searchlights Glaring, Airborne Lawmen Have Their Own Perspective on Crime

July 26, 1987|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN | Ellen Alperstein is a writer and editor based in Santa Monica.

It's quiet there too. Collins picks a path for Wyse, the searchlight sweeping out patches of lawn. A helicopter's superior position aloft enables it to track someone's progress by following impressions made on grass--a set of fresh footprints is visible from the air for 30 or 40 minutes. From the ground, such a depression is indistinct--it can be a footprint, or it can be an impression left by a napping cat.

"You can tell suspects who have been chased by a helicopter before," Collins says. "They stick to the pavement, or to dirt. And they always turn right. I wonder why they do that?" He laughs, nudging Wyse. They shrug in tandem.

Tonight, Collins and Wyse set down at Compton Airport for a quick break. They have radioed ahead to a Compton Police Department sergeant, who meets them at the closed landing strip, bearing sweet rolls. Conversation about the imminent delivery of Compton's first helicopter ensues. The department is on the brink of joining the ranks of the airborne.

But sky cops don't talk numbers; they talk shop. "We're just a bunch of technicians who all know each other," says San Bernardino County's Deputy Chief Terry Jagerson. They trade ideas about where to get rotor blades for less than $18,000 a pop; about how to cope with wind and the disorientation of night flying. Says Jagerson: "Hangar talk is important, because we all share the same sky. We're just like pilots at TWA."

Twenty-one years ago, the Los Angeles County Sheriff 's Department, whose jurisdiction covers the county's unincorporated areas, was the first police agency in Southern California to deploy helicopters in routine patrol. Today, two-thirds of the 63 law-enforcement agencies in California with airborne divisions call Southern California home.

Wyse, with an affinity for the technical, wants to talk about Huntington Beach's state-of-the-art, $500,000 McDonnell Douglas 500-E turbine craft, a "flying Porsche." Its four-blade tail rotor reduces not only the volume of noise generated but also its character. The relatively few complaints airborne law-enforcement departments receive generally relate to helicopter noise. The McDonnell Douglas 500-E, Wyse notes with some envy, hums, a sound that dissipates faster than the "whapping" of traditional blades, whose rotation actually creates mini-sonic booms. Huntington Beach--considered by Wyse and Collins the most technologically advanced Air Unit in Southern California--has equipped its deluxe model with gyro-stabilized binoculars and a Forward Looking Infrared system that enhances night vision (see Page 27).

It's not important now that the Sheriff 's Department was the first to employ the infrared system--its unit is down for repair. Competition among airborne agencies is a more subliminal element of the bon vivance that comes with membership in this fraternity. Without conceding a crime-fighting edge to the flashy hardware set, techno-crazed cops still envy their budget-blessed brethren. "Sometimes we feel like the junior varsity with our antiquated equipment," says Sheriff 's Aero Bureau Sgt. Doug Travis. "But we have comparable arrest records."

Wyse ingeniously assembled the effectively powerful searchlight on Air Unit 22 from four ordinary floodlight bulbs and a supply of spare parts. It delivers 1 million candlepower--300 times more light than a halogen automobile headlight. The LAPD can't complain about its single-bulb Nightsun, which produces a whopping 30 million candlepower. But it would sure like to have more than the two new helicopters it has been authorized to buy this year. Collins and Wyse have a hard time feeling sorry for the LAPD; tonight this crew would be happy with a radio that works properly.

Emerging technology provides helicopters with sophisticated navigational systems and mobile digital terminals currently in use in ground-patrol vehicles--coveted objects in airborne law enforcement. Tonight, Collins and Wyse are flying a much older version of the San Bernardino County Sheriff 's Department's new Hughes 500. They are flying the oldest ship in the fleet, the oldest of its type still flying anywhere. Like all flyboys, they harbor a fondness for the latest gadgetry, but what strikes an outsider is not the tool, but the use of it.

Fear is not a common currency in these conversations. Crowded skies, ground hazards and the criminal element come with the badge, but only one fatal accident has ever been notched into the ranks of routine helicopter patrols. Last March two Costa Mesa officers and a civilian were killed in a midair collision as one agency was handing over the pursuit of an allegedly stolen vehicle to another. There have been other fatalities in helicopters, but they were caused by equipment failure or weather conditions. Danger, or the illusion of it, is a durable glue that holds these cops together. Nearly every cop has a story.

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