With fewer cops on the ground, Long Beach police are relying more on their eyes in the sky.
The city’s police helicopters, called Fox, are a “force-multiplier,” said Police Chief Jim McDonnell during a recent interview. “A helicopter can help do the job of 20 to 25 ground officers.”
As many neighboring departments ground their helicopters amid budget cuts, the LBPD’s fleet is still flying after four decades. And amid a 20 percent cut in sworn officers on the streets, the city’s two helicopters have become essential to crime-fighting, leaders said.
So far this year, helicopter units have assisted ground units with locating and apprehending more than 380 felony suspects, McDonnell said.
From about 1,000 feet in the air, pilots have a unique view of Long Beach that is not available to ground officers. They can locate suspects easier and seal off a crime scene, often preventing criminals from fleeing.
Started in 1968, the Air Support Unit began as a way to help combat rising crime in the city. The department’s first helicopter was a Hughes 300. Currently the department flies two Eurocopter AS350B2 helicopters and has five pilots who operate the two Fox helicopters on a daily basis.
The annual operating cost for the Air Support Unit for this past fiscal year was approximately $1.65 million, police officials said.
Other law enforcement departments have grounded their operations, citing cost as the main factor. After 16 years, a partnership between Costa Mesa and Newport Beach to provide air support to police on the ground came to a halt.
The ABLE helicopters, or Eagles, were grounded in June 2011 when the Costa Mesa City Council voted to dissolve the partnership. Both cities now have an agreement with Huntington Beach for police helicopter services that cost $700 an hour.
The hourly cost to operate and maintain the Fox helicopters in Long Beach, not including staffing, is approximately $600 per hour.
Last month, Fueling California, a nonprofit advocacy group for major fuel consumers, donated $10,000 to the Long Beach Police department to help offset some of the fuel cost to operate the helicopters. That will provide enough fuel for about three months, LBPD officials said.
And next month, the department hopes to purchase and install a new video system in Fox obtained through a federal grant. The current equipment is more than a decade old, police officials said.
McDonnell sees the cost as justified due to the benefits an air program provides the department, the city and its residents. The Fox crew can help search for fleeing subjects, help coordinate and set up perimeters, offer tactical information to ground officers and incident commanders as well as perform patrolling duties, said Sgt. Marcus Hodge.
“I think there’s a misconception that we’re only called in for vehicle pursuits,” said pilot Michael Colbert. “We do that but we also do so much more from pursuits to helping find lost children, to providing assistance to ground officers in the field.”
Both Fox helicopters are equipped with various high-tech hardware and software including FLIR heat-detecting cameras and a downlink system that allows incident commanders on the ground to view video gathered by the helicopters in real time.
Fox also provides quick response to volatile scenes and backup for ground units, said Colbert’s fellow pilot, Brian Armstrong.
“We can go from one side of the city to the other in about three minutes,” Armstrong said.
That quick response time usually means Fox and its crew are many times the first on scene, Hodge said, allowing them to assess the situation and relay that information to incoming units.
That information was used recently when a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter helped protect officers and civilians during an incident in Carson that led to the fatal shooting of a man during a running gunbattle with Long Beach officers.
On Sept. 25, Erick Balint, 32, who was on community probation through the prison realignment program that reduces the number of inmates in state prison, had threatened to kill his former girlfriend and her family, according to police. The helicopter crew quickly found a man believed to be the Balint at a gas station at Del Amo Boulevard and Central Avenue in Carson.
Police said Balint shot at the first Long Beach units to roll up, prompting an exchange of gunfire. More shots were fired at a nearby park.
After running into a residential neighborhood, the suspect tried to break into a home in the 20000 block of Hillford Avenue, when he was shot and killed by police.
“Through the information provided by air support, we learned he was lying in wait for officers,” Hodge said.
While other departments hire those with flight experience, such as military experience, pilots in Long Beach are chosen from the police rank and file, said Colbert, who along with Armstrong, has been flying for about 12 years.
Part of the reasoning behind training from within is that pilots must play the dual roles of police officer and licensed pilot, Colbert said. Not everyone is always happy, however, with the helicopters swirling above. One of the main complaints the Air Support Unit hears on a regular basis is the noise.
“We try to fly courteous but sometimes depending on the situation, we have to be over a scene to help gather crime scene information and evidence, direct ground officers to a suspect or provide support,” Colbert said. “As soon as we are not needed we leave the area, and when asked we try to explain that to residents. We try to explain that when we are out it’s usually because we are working a case and trying to keep them safe.”
The uses of the Fox helicopters are not limited to only police work. Fox and its crew have also assisted with fire situations, rescues and trainings.
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, much emphasis has been placed on keeping the Port of Long Beach safe, and the Air Support Unit helps in that as well, leaders said.
Fox has also been deployed several times to help find stranded sailors and boats.
“Many times all we know is that the person can see the Queen Mary,” said Colbert. “Well that really could be anywhere, so we go up and are able to see more than those who are on the water.”
The enhanced information gathered and shared by pilots to officers, firefighters and other authorities is what McDonnell feels is the true value of the program.
“It truly is an invaluable tool for our department and for the residents of Long Beach,” McDonnell said.