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Chopper Fleet Rises as Issue in Sheriff Race

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether they carry police officers spotting criminals from above or the ubiquitous television crews capturing the latest freeway chase, helicopters have shaped the perception of crime in Los Angeles.

But there are those who complain that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is underrepresented in the air.

The Sheriff’s Department--with hundreds of square miles to patrol, from deserts and mountains to high-crime urban areas--has 17 pilots to fly five helicopters, compared with the LAPD’s 59 flight officers for 16 copters.

Most of the sheriff’s flights are over the L.A. Basin. On a typical night shift, two choppers handle the basin and one covers northern Los Angeles County.

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That area is so vast, however, that officials acknowledge there are times when no copters are available over some outlying regions, including the sprawling Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

Patrick Gomez, a patrol sergeant from the Temple sheriff’s station who is running for sheriff, complained of a lack of sufficient air support during a recent candidates’ forum in Valencia. He expanded on those comments in an interview.

“It’s a real issue for the rank and file,” Gomez said. “We’ll often ask for one when we have a car theft or something developing and we’re told by dispatch that there aren’t any available. And that’s for the entire area.”

Often, deputies rely on assistance from cities like Pasadena, Long Beach or Lakewood that have their own chopper fleet.

Capt. Mike Bauer, who heads the sheriff’s Aero Bureau, is quick to defend the “symbiotic” approach of seeking emergency help from other agencies’ helicopters. And he stresses his troops are getting plenty out of what they have.

“I don’t know of any situations where the lack of a helicopter really hurt us,” he said.

A few years ago, cash-strapped county officials sought places to trim the sheriff’s budget. They found an easy target in helicopters.

“Air operations are expensive to conduct,” Bauer said. “Any agency would concede that. You can cut a little bit and save a lot.”

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But Sheriff Sherman Block has shown he thinks the Aero Bureau needs to be beefed up again. In a budget request he submitted March 11 to the county Board of Supervisors, he asked that 17 positions be added--including seven pilots and one sergeant--at a cost of $1.2 million. The bureau’s annual budget now is about $7.2 million.

Even if Block’s request were granted, that would not make sheriff’s choppers more available in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, sheriff’s officials say. New resources would be deployed in the urban area of the Los Angeles Basin.

About 40% of the 8,806 total flight hours in 1997 were in the northern part of the county, officials say, although more of the population--and more of the crime problem--is located in the south. So if more hours could be added to the basin flights, the proportion would come closer to matching the population and crime rate, Bauer said.

“Anybody who has seen one of the recent chases on TV can see just how valuable a helicopter is,” Gomez said. “They can tell you where a suspect is going and what he’s doing. And a lot of times, that’s all you need.”

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