State Eyes in the Sky: On the History of Helicopters in Policing
AS CLOUDS OF SMOKE began to accumulate over the city in August of 1965, the manager of fleet sales for the Aircraft Division of the Hughes Tool Company made yet another call to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He had been trying for months to coax interest from law enforcement and saw the Watts Rebellion as the perfect opportunity for an eye-in-the-sky sales pitch. He was right. Over the next several days, a Hughes Helicopter served as an aerial observation and command post for the sheriff. As Richard C. Kirkland, a decorated Korean War helicopter pilot who later worked for Hughes as a salesman, described it in his 2002 book Tales of a Helicopter Pilot, those initial law enforcement flights were “primitive by today’s standards, but it opened eyes, and doors, to the potential.”
It was here in Los Angeles where helicopters made their first showing as “flying patrol cars” alongside the high-intensity firepower of SWAT teams. Both emerged as tools for suppressing Black insurgency and spread to become standard forms of policing across the country. Both tactical practices have, through mission creep, moved from rarefied and specialized operations into daily policing usage. Yet the history of the police helicopter remains relatively unknown.
In the years leading up to Watts, helicopters had come into increasingly heavy use for command-and-control operations in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Back in the states, helicopter salesmen—many of whom were veterans themselves—successfully tapped into the soldierlike desires of police to bring rotary aircraft into use for domestic surveillance. Militarized police dreams, combined with a density of aerospace defense contractors in Southern California and the era’s technological optimism, made Los Angeles the primary test bed for taking policing into what was then referred to as “the Space Age.”
To justify the massive expenditure that establishing new fleets of aircraft required, law enforcement and the aircraft industry worked together to persuade the public that the helicopter was more than just an expensive new toy. Within a year of their first test flight, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Lakewood—a suburban city in the southern part of the county—had secured what was then the largest ever federal grant issued to law enforcement to test the efficacy of whirlybird patrols using rented Hughes aircraft. Even before the findings from this initial study were published in 1968, the potential of helicopters for policing, specifically for “demonstrating a police presence,” was echoing through federal reports on the future of policing.
Community members and abolitionist organizers have equated this logic to that of an occupying army flexing its sovereignty. In April 2023, a SWAT team landed their Super Puma helicopter on a West Hollywood street as a show of force, snarling Friday traffic for 11 hours, in a standoff with barricaded subjects that revealed themselves to be simply clamorous pets inside an empty apartment.
The study that resulted from the sheriff’s first field test did what it was designed to do and found a decrease in crime in a white bedroom community during the helicopter test phase, yet the exact mechanism of hypothesized crime prevention remained elusive. Not to be outdone by the sheriff, the LAPD commissioned its own study by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which had been transferred to NASA from the army only a decade earlier. Paul Whitehead, an emeritus sociology professor who conducted a more robust study in 2002—a study that found no relationship between helicopter surveillance and crime—has noted that the JPL study was designed “with the purpose of finding the evidence that helicopters improved policing. And everything was aimed at reaching that conclusion even before the first piece of data was collected.” Today, the more than 50-year-old study remains a key justification on the LAPD’s website for their helicopter arsenal, which it also proudly claims to be the world’s largest police fleet.
To facilitate police sales, the aviation industry drew on both military salesmen and law enforcement consultants. For example, Hugh MacDonald, the division chief at LASD who first flew on a Hughes helicopter at the request of a persistent salesman, was later hired by the aircraft company to sculpt its national helicopter sales strategy aimed at law enforcement agencies. After the L.A. evaluation was published, a cadre of former-military-helicopter-pilots-turned-salesmen was quickly assembled across multiple helicopter manufacturers and armed with both the study and the insights of a once-skeptical cop-turned-advocate.
Dividends for these law enforcement courtship efforts came quickly. By 1970, upwards of one in five new commercial helicopter purchases were made by police departments. By the following year, this technological, corporate, and policing vision had spread from Los Angeles to 24 municipalities that had acquired helicopters for police patrol. Police sales buoyed slumping corporate and charter sales and pushed design changes, such as increased onboard electrical capacity to power loudspeakers, high intensity lights, video recording, and night vision devices.
The Hughes 300C model of helicopter was reportedly developed especially for law enforcement applications. Multiple tributaries of federal funding, culminating in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, helped make the initial purchase of these big-ticket items more fiscally palatable for municipal and county budgets across the nation. Historian Elizabeth Hinton has documented that by the time the early 1970s segued into the middle of the decade, the federal government had bought helicopters for over 50 local police forces. Their reach extends well beyond the borders of the United States, with police helicopter use spanning six continents. Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, police helicopters even served as an olive branch between a US defense contractor, Bell, and the “emerging markets” of the former USSR aviation industry.
In the early 1970s, the LAPD was logging over 62 full days of flight time per month. These aerial patrols focused on five police divisions, all but one working in predominantly Black or Chicano neighborhoods. As historian Max Felker-Kantor detailed in his 2018 book Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD, discontent with these helicopters—which would quickly, and widely, become known as “ghetto birds”—had already been coalescing for several years. A spokesman for the Greater Los Angeles Urban Coalition, Ralph M. Nutter, said in 1969, “We are of the opinion that exaggerated and unnecessary use of law enforcement helicopters is causing unnecessary tension in minority areas and stimulating resentment to such an extent that there will be provocation for acts or attitudes which could cause lasting harm to the community.”
The proliferation of police helicopters coincided with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the mounting public demands for clean air, water, and soil that pushed the agency into existence. Today, the LAPD uses environmental arguments to support requests to the city council for new helicopters. Some 600 pages deep into their latest budget proposal, submitted in November 2022, the department notes that “a helicopter is equivalent to four Black & White vehicles […] which may contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Yet the intensive energy needs of rotorcraft make the fuel consumption of a single LAPD helicopter roughly equivalent to 23 squad cars running at 36 mph. Beyond mystifying green math, the most persistent environmental concerns emerging from police helicopters are not related to their carbon footprint but rather the sonic consequences of what the engine and rotors do with all that energy.
Noise has been a key community concern since the start of the Sheriff’s Department’s experiments. Engineers at UCLA recorded police helicopter noise between 70 and 80 decibels in residential neighborhoods and 65 and 75 decibels inside classrooms, loud enough to obscure teacher-student communication. They also found that nighttime flights produced an Effective Perceived Noise Level, a measurement that takes into account the tonality and duration of the noise exposure, of 100–115 decibels and were “in violation of municipal noise codes and exceed the federal landing noise limits for new jet aircraft.” Beyond this one-paragraph abstract of a 12-minute presentation in 1973, little to no research has been conducted on these helicopters that have become, at the very least, the irritating background noise of life in Los Angeles.
That is why we—researchers and community organizers—began collecting data on the more than 50 helicopters registered to law enforcement in Los Angeles. We started by submitting public records requests to the LAPD and LASD, owners of the two largest fleets in the county, to acquire accurate tail numbers. We then took to the FAA helicopter registration database to fill in the other, smaller municipalities, like El Monte and Pasadena. Then, to understand their movements, we purchased the six most recent years of flight trajectory data available for all of these aircraft, dating back to 2017. We’ve released some preliminary results that indicate that Black and Latino neighborhoods are surveilled more often and at lower altitudes—even when controlling for race, income, and other variables.
The LASD would not divulge simple public records that would enable our research, so we had to resort to suing them for these public documents. Our successful lawsuit yielded documents that revealed the LASD Aero Bureau budget increased by $11,265,140.89 from 2019 to 2020, an increase of more than 40 percent.
In a cruel cycling of history from the Watts Rebellion to the uprisings spurred by the murder of George Floyd, protests over police brutality and structural racism have been countered by the thundering presence of law enforcement helicopters in Los Angeles and their ever-expanding budget lines. In line with its roots, a recent report from the L.A. County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission indicated that Aero Bureau had no Black staff and that leadership were members of multiple racially homogeneous deputy gangs including the Spartans and the Vikings, once described by a federal judge as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.” A 2021 lawsuit filed by a man who states that he is the only Black helicopter pilot to ever serve in the Long Beach Police Department, which patrols approximately the southernmost 10 miles of Los Angeles County, claims 436 incidents of racial discrimination or harassment. Racist imagery was allegedly baked into pilot continuing education exams, posted in the pilots’ office, used as computer screensavers, and placed in helicopter flight logs.
Enumerating flight hours, altitudes, and budget lines can paint a crisp picture of the law enforcement use of helicopters in the sprawling, most populous county in the country while remaining abstract in their social and biological costs. The reality is that police helicopters have measurable effects on the physical world, even for those who never have an in-person interaction with a law enforcement officer. Thousands of times a second on every flight, the rotor blades slap the air, sending out small vortex trails that then interact with the next blade slicing through the air a tiny fraction of a second later. This phenomenon, known as blade vortex interaction, yields the pulsing, clapping sound of helicopters in addition to what is known as “thickness noise,” which is generated by the displacement of air with each passing rotor. Unlike the often constant din of a highway, the sounds of helicopters erupt into soundscapes intermittently. Chronic exposure to intermittent noise is associated with higher risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. At night, these slapping blades can cut into dreams. In addition to a more metaphorical deferral of Black and Brown dreaming, arousing people from sleep can increase diabetes and cancer risks, and exacerbate anxiety and other mental health symptoms. Disturbed sleep can also make it harder for students to learn new concepts or remember what they studied on tests.
Even from our preliminary analyses of the flight trajectories, it is clear that there are racialized impacts of the noise pollution generated by dubiously effective police helicopter patrolling. These sonic pulses and their many consequences are traces of airborne structural racism that can have lasting, generational impacts. For over 50 years, this large-scale experiment in policing has played out in the skies over Los Angeles in the name of public safety. We are working on determining the extent of these impacts, but even without all the numbers in hand just yet, we can confidently say that it’s time for a citywide conversation about how many public safety dollars are going into racialized harm.
Nicholas Shapiro is an assistant professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics.
Kate McInerny is a staff researcher with the Carceral Ecologies Lab at UCLA, where she recently earned her BA in public affairs.
Matyos Kidane is a community organizer with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a community-based abolitionist group working to dismantle the police surveillance state.
Jacobo Pereira-Pacheco is a statistician and data scientist working with the Carceral Ecologies Lab at UCLA.
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