Sunday, November 09, 2014

Los Angeles Police Department is reviewing use of helicopters for non-department events

The Los Angeles Police Department helicopter climbed over a ridge of homes surrounding the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club's golf course and dipped down over a fairway, its blades churning as it hovered above the grass.

Dozens of golfers, children and parents waved and snapped photos from the clubhouse deck.

There wasn't a suspect in sight. No crime had occurred. The police chopper was there for a different reason: to drop scores of golf balls onto the course as part of a fundraiser for the Parent Teacher Assn. at Palm Crest Elementary School.

The helicopter's appearance was arranged by an LAPD sergeant whose children attend the La Cañada Flintridge school.

The choppers' main purpose is to help track suspects and patrol the city from above. But the department routinely donates its helicopters and officers to community functions and air shows to help promote the agency or raise money for police-related causes.

Some of the events are held outside Los Angeles and have no direct connection to the LAPD or the city, police officials said.

After inquiries from The Times, the LAPD said it has launched an investigation into the department's participation in the Oct. 27 La Cañada Flintridge fundraiser as well as other events, and is examining its policies on when to approve the use of the choppers.

"At first glance, it doesn't sound like something we should be doing," said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, an LAPD spokesman, about the La Cañada Flintridge event. "But we're going to take a look at it."

The LAPD's Eurocopter AS350 B2 and four-man crew — three officers in the air and a safety officer on the ground — were provided free of charge for the event, said Capt. Gary Walters, who oversees the LAPD helicopter fleet.

Officers dropped the balls from the helicopter as part of a raffle in which donors to the PTA event paid money for each ball. The owners of the six balls that landed closest to a yellow circle painted on the green won prizes, which included an iPad Mini, a GoPro camera and a laptop computer.

After dropping the balls, the helicopter flew up and over the golf course clubhouse, blaring its siren before disappearing over a row of homes nearby.

"It is part of our goodwill efforts," Walters said. "It is for the spirit of the community."

The sergeant who arranged the chopper's appearance sits on the PTA "Dads Committee," Smith said. The committee helped organize the PTA event.

Brian Parker, a member of the committee, said the LAPD sergeant has a friend in the department's Air Support division, which operates the helicopters. He declined to name the sergeant.

Smith also declined to identify the sergeant, citing safety and privacy concerns for his children.

The helicopter's appearance cost $771 in fuel, maintenance, personnel and planning costs, Smith said.

Last year, an LAPD helicopter crew flew to the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, where an LAPD chaplain dressed as Judah Maccabee, a key figure in the celebration of Hanukkah, handed out dreidels to schoolchildren.

The helicopter was arranged by the chaplain, who had a child attending the school, Smith said. He said the chaplain's father was the head rabbi at the private school.

That event was considered "part of an educational and religious outreach," Smith said.

LAPD officials said the agency's helicopters have been sent to 16 other non-department events since 2013, 11 of which were outside the city limits, according to a list provided by the department. At least seven of those appearances were at air shows across the region, many of them organized by private, nonprofit groups.

The LAPD allows helicopters to participate in some community events as a way to promote the department and encourage recruitment, Smith said.

The Air Support Division, which has a fuel budget of more than $2 million, bills itself as the largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation in the world. So far this year, its fleet of 17 helicopters has responded to more than 37,000 requests for help and logged about 13,500 hours in the air.

The department said the division's commanding officer had approved sending helicopters to the events in La Cañada Flintridge, Huntington Beach and elsewhere.

"It is not something the pilot can do because my kid's going to whatever school," said Walters, the current commanding officer.

In response to questions from The Times, the LAPD issued a statement saying it is reviewing "all recent charitable and community events in which LAPD helicopters participated."

"Based on that review, the department will consider modifying the protocols and approval process for all community engagements, charitable events and other activities occurring outside the City of Los Angeles," the statement said.

Some city officials questioned the use of LAPD helicopters for private groups that have no connection to the department's mission.

Los Angeles Councilman Bernard Parks, a former LAPD chief, said the decision to send a pilot and crew who were not already on patrol to La Cañada Flintridge raised "even more concerns."

"It's one thing if you are working and you deviate from your work and go do something that is in close proximity," he said. "It's another thing to say, 'We just brought this helicopter in to go to La Cañada.'"

A spokeswoman for L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander, a reserve LAPD officer, said he had asked the department to review the use of its helicopters.

Bob Anderson, who heads the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Noise Coalition, which has long advocated for flight restrictions to limit aircraft noise in residential areas, said the appearance in La Cañada went against the LAPD's past promises "to do as much as they can to ensure they fly as high as possible when not actively pursuing their mission."

Anderson, a semi-retired aerospace engineer, said residents understand that the LAPD uses helicopters to augment its patrols, but said unnecessary flights funded by taxpayer dollars were unacceptable.

"These helicopters are very expensive to fly, and every trip needs to be justified," he said. "Let them use a private helicopter. That it is not even in the city limits is even stranger."

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