Copter Pilots Will Try to Redefine Safety : 5 Police Agencies to Gather Today in Shadow of 3-Fatality Air Collision

Times Staff Writer

Representatives of the five law enforcement agencies that operate helicopter programs in Orange County are scheduled to meet today to discuss better coordination of high-speed pursuits and other airborne policies in the wake of this month's fatal police helicopter collision over Irvine.

Similar meetings may occur soon in Los Angeles among several police agencies, and sponsors hope that if regional cooperation can be achieved in Southern California's congested skies, it could become a model for the nation's 335 law enforcement helicopter programs.

Currently, these programs operate on their own, with few regional guidelines and little or no control from Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers.

Believed an Effective Tool

Airborne law enforcement, which took root in Southern California during the late 1960s, has expanded nationwide over the past 20 years, and police officials now believe it to be an effective tool in the reduction of certain street crimes.

Most of the programs have compiled excellent safety records, but nagging questions remain--especially in the aftermath of the March 10 Irvine collision in which two police officers and a civilian observer were killed and two other officers injured.

"It may be that we can reach an agreement on (high speed pursuit) procedures, primarily for this area. But conceivably it could spread to other areas as well," said Huntington Beach Lt. Robert Morrison, who directs the county's oldest helicopter program and helped organize today's meeting.

"It's especially important for our region because there are not that many places in the United States where you have so many helicopter programs operating in one area . . . you don't have this constant overlap as you do here."

Orange County officials cautioned that the Huntington Beach conference--which includes representatives from that city, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and the Orange County Sheriff's Department--is not taking place in a panicky atmosphere. They pointed out that police helicopter programs have compiled good safety records since they began operating.

Still, this month's collision between Newport Beach and Costa Mesa copters while pursuing an auto--the nation's first accident involving two police helicopters--has demonstrated the need for better communication, according to Morrison.

The collision occurred when the Costa Mesa helicopter attempted to "pass off" the pursuit of a car theft suspect to the Newport Beach aircraft when the chase entered that city. Although the two aircraft were in radio contact with one another, some officials have speculated that there may have been confusion over the direction both helicopters were turning during the maneuver.

Cites Safety Record

In the aftermath of the Irvine incident, Los Angeles Police Capt. Robert Woods, who directs the nation's largest municipal police helicopter program, said that coordination between airborne law enforcement agencies in Southern California could be improved. He stressed, however, that the safety record of such programs has been excellent.

"I want to approach my peers in other organizations and see if we can work out some . . . practices at least to better coordinate these things because we're always running into each other's jurisdictions," Woods said.

"The sheriff's coming into the city, and we take pursuits and go all over the place. There needs to be a better coordination. The system works now, it really does, but . . . we're always looking for ways to make it better."

High-speed pursuits involving helicopters are relatively rare, and the great majority have been conducted successfully, Woods said. In these situations, pilots typically look out for the safety of officers and civilians on the ground, using radio communications to direct traffic away from congested intersections and steer police away from ambush situations.

Just as important, police pilots rely on a special radio frequency to keep in touch with each other during incidents, so their respective locations are well known.

However, the Irvine collision underscored the problems--and conflicting policies--that can surface when several law enforcement agencies get involved in a chase. While the Orange County pilots followed a "hand off" policy, for example, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department helicopters prefer to maintain the lead position even when a high-speed chase crosses jurisdictional lines, a spokesman said.

Policies Could Differ

"We have not really sat down and compared policies . . . ," Morrison said. One city's guidelines on a high-speed pursuit "could be totally different from ours, and we don't even know that," he added.

"If we could come up with a policy or something positive that has come out of this tragedy . . . we would then let that spread throughout the other counties, up into Los Angeles County, and from there maybe across the nation. We're always trying to make this a better system."

In doing so, Woods, Morrison and their counterparts across the nation are operating largely on their own. Ever since the first police helicopter was deployed by New York City officers in 1948, airborne law enforcement programs have been generally free from outside regulation.

Like private helicopters, police aircraft generally fly at altitudes under 1,000 feet and are not usually subject to direction from FAA controllers. More important, there is no nationwide set of standards by which the helicopters operate, other than the so-called Visual Flight Rules, which boil down to a "see and be seen" policy.

"When you're up there, a police helicopter pilot is basically in control of the situation," Morrison explained. "We expect that pilot to look out for the safety of his aircraft, for other aircraft nearby and for officers on the ground. That's about as close to a standard as we get."

Called an Aberration

Police helicopter pilots have flown safely despite these loose guidelines, and the Irvine accident, while tragic, was an "aberration," Morrison said. However, he acknowledged that there have been other airborne accidents across the nation during the past 20 years, including fatalities in Los Angeles and Orange County.

The exact number of such incidents is hard to pin down, because the federal government does not separate law enforcement statistics from those involving other helicopters, said Ray Raffensberger, a Baltimore policeman and president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. (ALEA), a national group of law enforcement helicopter agencies.

Despite these risks, a growing number of police officials across the country strongly support helicopter programs, he said. Airborne patrol units have consistently shown their value in making arrests and preventing a variety of street crimes, such as burglaries, auto thefts and assaults, Raffensberger noted.

The number of helicopter programs has grown nationally from 61 in 1970 to 335 today, with more than 60 agencies operating in California, according to an ALEA survey. Some cities, such as San Francisco, Chicago and Colorado Springs, abandoned police helicopter programs shortly after launching them, citing high costs or safety risks. But the majority of communities that began the programs with a "sound financial base" have kept them operating, Raffensberger said.

"How do you put a dollar sign on the 3,000 shock and trauma victims whose lives may have been saved by police helicopters that took them to hospitals. . . .? How do you put a dollar sign on the woman who was not raped because a police aircraft was overhead and provided an opportunity for it not to happen?" Raffensberger said, describing Maryland's experience with airborne law enforcement.

Variety of Duties

In addition to these duties, police helicopters have also been used to monitor freeway traffic, rescue stranded hikers, help with drug-enforcement surveillance, patrol coastlines and carry out crowd-control functions during times of civil disorder.

Today, a police helicopter can cost up to $500,000 and comes equipped with expensive floodlights, noise control devices and infra-red equipment to spot suspects at night. The state of the art has come a long way from the small, gas-powered helicopters first used by the Los Angeles Police Department to monitor traffic patterns in the early 1960s, Woods said.

Although police helicopter programs began appearing across the nation 20 years ago, Raffensberger and other officials credit Southern California with developing the country's first regularly scheduled day and night patrols.

The LAPD experimented with such patrols over the West San Fernando Valley and the Coliseum area in 1968 and expanded the service citywide after a report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration indicated that the patrols had helped to reduce certain street crimes.

At about the same time, Lakewood began experimental patrols with funds provided by the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Agency (LEAA). The program was expanded to include the adjacent cities of Artesia, Bellflower, Hawaiian Gardens, Cerritos and Paramount after a federal report suggested that it had also helped reduce certain street crimes.

First in County

In 1969, Huntington Beach became the first Orange County city to deploy police helicopters, and Anaheim, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa began their own programs several years later. During the early 1970s, the programs "pretty much took off nationwide," usually with generous grant funds from the now-defunct LEAA program, Morrison said.

As the Orange County programs began operating, the county grand jury recommended in 1970 that city and county officials explore ways to coordinate helicopter patrols over the entire county. If funds to pay for these patrols could somehow be shared, grand jurors reasoned, the entire county would benefit from increased protection.

Conceivably, a countywide program might smooth out other differences, such as high-speed pursuit policies. But the goal has remained unmet. Although the county's five helicopter programs assist neighboring communities in police emergencies, the majority of the county's 26 cities still do not have regular day and night patrols.

City and county officials cite high costs as a major obstacle.

Santa Ana Councilman Dan Griset explained that helicopter service is expensive and that the absence of federal support for the programs makes it unlikely that his city could enter into such a program. Capt. John Robertson, operations commander with the Garden Grove Police Department, added that his community and other small cities could not realistically afford the estimated $1-million annual cost of a helicopter program.

Cites Other Priorities

Asked if county officials might take the lead in launching an areawide helicopter program, as the 1970 grand jury had suggested, Supervisor Roger R. Stanton said the county had different law enforcement priorities today, such as relieving jail overcrowding, and was unlikely to embark on a costly new police program.

"Certainly, a pooling or sharing of costs (among the county's 26 cities) would be appropriate," he said. "But it's not a simple task, and I don't see it happening in the long run. How you rectify the differences in problems between a small city like Villa Park and a city like Anaheim is, to me, quite perplexing."

Morrison said he attempted to sell city officials on the merits of airborne law enforcement in recent years but has grown discouraged. The sheer difficulty of getting 26 different city councils and police chiefs to agree on a standard, countywide program, he said, made it unlikely that such a program could emerge anytime soon.

"You've got to persuade an awful lot of people to pull together on a countywide system; you practically have to be able to walk on water to do that," he said. "I decided to concentrate on other things, like making our program as good as it could be."

Looking ahead to today's meeting of Orange County helicopter pilots, he added:

"We pretty much wrote the book on police helicopters in Southern California. Now, we have an opportunity to fine-tune the system even more. It never hurts when you talk with someone and figure out what the other guy's thinking."

HUNTINGTON BEACH AERO UNIT AT A GLANCE The Costs

'86 Operating Budget

$448,000 Four helicopters (2 McDonnell Douglas, 2 Bell Helicopter models) logged more than 3,200 hours of patrol time.

'86 Personnel Cost $686,000 Salaries for 1 administrator, 1 sergeant, 6 officer-pilots, 1 maintenance chief, 1 mechanic and 1 training cadet.

The Benefits

In the last four months of 1986, helicopter units participated in 152 arrests, 32 of which involved drunk-driving suspects. Officers also wrote 357 citations.

In September, helicopter units responded to 393 calls and were first on the scene 84% of the time.

In November, helicopter units transported detectives to the Big Bear area to investigate a Huntington Beach murder. The units helped set up roadblocks, leading to the arrest of suspects.

In January, helicopter units assisted the California Highway Patrol in a pursuit that started in Los Angeles, leading to the arrest of a felony child endangerment suspect in Laguna Niguel.

In December, a helicopter unit assisted a lone patrol officer in a foot pursuit of a narcotics suspect who fled over fences and through yards. The suspect was later arrested.

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