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A Co-Op Chopper? Cities Give It a Whirl at Dealers' Expense : Surveillance: Huntington Park, Bell, Maywood and South Gate will spend about $72,000 in the next six months to lease a helicopter to track drug suspects from the air. It could pay off--big.

September 09, 1990|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Huntington Park, Bell, Maywood and South Gate are pooling their resources to lease a helicopter to help their detectives track down major drug dealers.

The cities plan to spend about $72,000 in the next six months on the helicopter, which will be used primarily to track suspected drug dealers over city streets and area freeways. It also could be used for general crime-fighting in the cities if needed, city officials said.

City officials are hoping that the helicopter will lead to more drug busts and more federal forfeiture money for their police departments. Local police departments receive a share of cash seized during federal drug investigations, based on the help they provide to federal agents.

The helicopter should take to the air in the next month if leasing talks are successful, officials said.

Each city will contribute about $18,000 in drug forfeiture money to pay for the helicopter and pilot. Federal guidelines require that cities use forfeiture money for police purposes.

At the end of six months, the cities will decide whether the helicopter is worth the expense.

"It doesn't take too many major drug busts for us to make a profit on the situation," Huntington Park Mayor Thomas E. Jackson said.

The four cities have combined forces in the last several years to work with federal agents on drug investigations that often lead outside city boundaries. Their police departments contribute detectives to a joint investigative team called the South East Area Narcotics Enforcement Team.

Earlier this year, the cities received more than $1 million in forfeiture funds after their detectives played a major role in a 1989 investigation. More than 21 tons of cocaine and about $10 million in cash were seized at a Sylmar warehouse.

Jackson said the cities decided to use the helicopter after they met in July with officials of the U.S. Customs Service Office of Enforcement. Federal officials told council members from the cities that their narcotics enforcement team would not receive as many tips in the future unless they used a helicopter, Jackson said. Tips would instead be passed to law enforcement agencies that track drug dealers with choppers.

"It gives our team equal footing," Jackson said.

Maywood Police Chief Ted Heidke said the helicopter will enable detectives to track tricky dealers who try to evade capture by driving at high speed and making sudden turns.

"You're trying to follow some crook, who many times is doing 80 m.p.h. on the freeway and watching for people following him," Heidke said. "We found in too many cases (his officers) end up losing the guy."

In these times of tight budgets, the forfeiture funds offer the four departments a chance to hire more officers and buy expensive new equipment.

Financially troubled Huntington Park, for example, plans to spend about $1.2 million in drug forfeiture money in the next year to hire seven more sworn officers and six other police employees and to buy new equipment.

The Huntington Park City Council decided to use the forfeiture money after voters last year rejected a proposed 7% utility tax that would have raised money for more police.

If the flow of forfeiture money stops, the city will have to lay off the additional police employees, Police Chief Patrick M. Connolly said.

"There is the possibility we will get more drug forfeiture money, which will pay, we hope, for the helicopter and much, much more," Jackson said.

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