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a san diego police helicopterAre SDPD’s noisy copters a waste of money?

IT’S 1 A.M. AND THE WINDOWS ARE RATTLING, the dog is barking, the baby’s crying. Once again, a police helicopter is disturbing the peace.

The cop ’copters can be heard over neighborhoods from San Ysidro to Clairemont, and inland as far as Del Cerro. But they spend much of their time over central San Diego, prompting a steady stream of noise complaints from residents.

“We wouldn’t be there at all, except the bad guys are already there,” says air-support Sergeant Mark Hanten.

But critics question whether the helicopters’ effectiveness at catching “bad guys” is worth all the noise—and the high cost. Last year, records show, the San Diego Police Department spent more than $1 million on maintenance for its four aging helicopters, which fly out of a leased hangar at Montgomery Field. The unit has nine pilots, four tactical officers and a sergeant. With two full-time contract mechanics, insurance and fuel costs, the airborne unit cost at least $2.5 million in 2003.

And the prices will get higher soon. In August, the department got permission to seek bids for leasing new helicopters. Tom Adler, a retired attorney who lives near Balboa Park, says the helicopters are noisy and disruptive. “Helicopters make people feel unsafe because they assume there is a very, very bad guy nearby, when it’s often a routine traffic stop,” Adler says. “They’re horrendously expensive and not at all cost effective, compared to just using the money to put more officers on the street.”

Statistics kept by Hanten show the helicopters last year were involved in 7,600 calls that netted 980 arrests during some 3,000 flight hours. About half of the calls were considered “officer safety” calls, in which a suspect may still be on the scene. No information is available about what people are being arrested for, whether it’s fleeing a traffic stop or a murder scene.

Hanten insists the helicopter patrols are worthwhile. Armed with infrared scanners that measure heat on the ground to identify humans in the dark, the copters “can search canyons and find the bad guys or a lost Alzheimer’s patient,” he says. “We can take over a pursuit and let the squads on the ground back off without losing the vehicle.

“The helicopter is a force-multiplier,” he says. “It does things no number of officers on the ground can do.” Although Hanten says pursuits often end immediately because of the helicopter’s presence, videotapes reviewed by San Diego Magazine suggest otherwise. They often show people driving until they can’t, then running through yards and canyons, where the infrared still tracks them while the flight crew directs officers on the ground.

The city of Oceanside had a police helicopter but gave it up in the early 1990s when the state kept money slated for municipalities. There are no plans to get another, says Mayor Terry Johnson.

“We took the resources to put more officers on the ground,” he says. “You’d think you could find better uses for a helicopter than a routine traffic stop, but that’s where they are if nothing else is going on.”

Johnson disputes Hanten’s description of a helicopter as a “force-multiplier” and, given SDPD’s chronic shortage of officers, wonders whether the $2.5 million could be better spent putting more cops on the streets.

“If I were in San Diego, I’d look at using the resources to best serve citizens,” Johnson says. “I understand they give some people the feeling of safety, but giving people feelings is a luxury we could not afford.”

—MARTY GRAHAM
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