COMPTON — A significant drop in five major crimes--rape, robbery, burglary, larceny and auto theft--has occurred in the city this year and police officials believe their "eye in the sky" is responsible.
The "eye" is the bright yellow police helicopter that has been patrolling the city every night since October.
"The citizens call and tell us they feel better when that helicopter is flying around up there," said Police Cmdr. Dallas Elvis, who oversees the air patrol.
Police crime statistics indicate that residents may, indeed, have reason to feel safer.
Percentages of Decline
During the first five months of the year, for example, there were 38.4% fewer rapes than during the same period last year. There were 22.4% fewer burglaries, 14.2% fewer robberies and 11.6% fewer auto thefts. Larceny, a theft of more than $400 that does not involve force or unlawful entry, has dropped 5%.
"This is the first time in many, many years we can say we're really putting a dent in it," said Police Detective Jack McConnell, one of those trained to serve as an observer in the helicopter. "It's just such a tool," he said.
Even more important, say police, response time to calls is much faster. The helicopter, when in the air, can reach any crime scene in the city within 15 seconds, and can direct police cars to a fleeing suspect, Elvis said.
City officials have budgeted more than $1 million to buy two more helicopters, which are to be delivered later this summer.
The helicopter's fans include rank-and-file patrolmen.
Officer James Russell, a 13-year veteran of the Compton force, says the helicopter is "the greatest gift the police have ever gotten. Every department should have one."
Officer Gene Smith says the helicopter allows police to deploy patrol cars around a crime scene more quickly and effectively. Officers in the helicopter can spot a fleeing suspect or a car that has turned off its headlights to avoid detection.
"In the first nine days of this month (June)," said helicopter pilot Barry Lobel, a Compton police sergeant, "we've made 13 arrests that would not have happened if we hadn't had the helicopter." Although Compton's murder rate continues to climb, the helicopter increases the chances of catching murder suspects, Lobel said.
Discarded Weapon Recovered
Recently, officers in the helicopter saw an occupant tossing something out of the window of a fleeing car. After a suspect was arrested near a murder scene, patrolmen on the ground returned to the spot where the object had been discarded. The patrolmen found the gun used in the murder, Lobel said.
Air patrols are an expensive crime-fighting measure, especially for a city like Compton which experienced such a severe budget shortfall that it had to issue redevelopment bonds to balance its budget. It costs about $50 an hour in fuel and maintenance to keep Compton's three-seat helicopter in the air, Elvis said.
The helicopter, fully outfitted with police equipment and spotlights, costs about $270,000.
A similar helicopter is scheduled to arrive this summer. The city, however, has also ordered a $775,579 helicopter that can carry five people or a stretcher. The larger model also will have high beams, called midnight sun, that can light up a neighborhood in the middle of the night as if it were the middle of the afternoon, Elvis said.
COMPTON CRIME Police say new helicopter has helped cut crime in five categories.
Cases This Year Cases Last Year Percentage of Crime (January-May) (January-May) Increase/Decrease Murder 33 28 17% Rape 40 65 -38% Robbery 477 556 -14% Assault 862 795 8% Burglary 618 797 -22% Larceny ($400+) 205 216 -5% Auto Theft 617 698 -11%
Source: Compton Police Department