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Chief Says LAPD Flights Save Time, Money

Times Staff Writer

One recent Friday, while thousands of motorists were suffering through freeway traffic from the San Fernando Valley to downtown Los Angeles, Police Chief William J. Bratton skipped the congestion and made the trip in a fraction of the time, buzzing from Van Nuys to Parker Center in a city helicopter.

Earlier that day, Bratton bypassed the long lines and waits for a commercial flight at Los Angeles International Airport, instead hopping on a city-owned propeller plane that whisked him from Van Nuys to Sacramento and back.

Ah, the perks of being chief of a department with a fleet of aircraft.

The Los Angeles Police Department website brags that the LAPD has “the largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation in the world,” with 17 helicopters and one airplane.

In the last year and a half, Bratton has tapped the fleet 29 times to ferry him to events throughout the city and state. Police officials said they do not keep track of the total cost of the chief’s helicopter and airplane use.

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Officials say the average operating cost of a city helicopter is $400 per hour, and $550 an hour for the department’s Beechcraft King Air 200 turboprop airplane, which can carry eight or more passengers.

At that rate, the two-hour round trip to Sacramento last month cost the city more than $1,100, a little more than a commercial flight on Southwest Airlines.

The chief notes that he flew to Sacramento with a deputy chief, aide and a security officer to represent the LAPD at a state memorial service as part of Police Memorial Week.

A few weeks earlier, Bratton flew on the city airplane to San Francisco and back on a two-day trip to attend a Police Executive Research Forum.

Other trips include two flights to Las Vegas. One was an April 1 round trip so Bratton could attend the Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay, which pits runners from the LAPD against their counterparts in other law enforcement agencies. For the other, Bratton was guest lecturer at the Las Vegas Sheriff’s Leadership Series.

The fixed-wing aircraft was acquired through military surplus primarily for investigative purposes.

Bratton argues that time is money and the taxpayers get more productivity from him when he is not stuck in traffic or waiting to pass the security screener at the airport.

“The Los Angeles police chief’s access to helicopters and planes to travel across the city, and occasionally the state, is vital,” Bratton said. “The size of the city, the amount of traffic and the demand on my schedule make the aircraft a cost-effective, practical solution to staying in touch and making myself more accessible.”

Not everyone is convinced.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., said city taxpayers have a right to expect the chief to watch the cost of out-of-town flights.

The group questions whether the use of a city airplane “is justified in this situation,” Coupal said.

“Certainly a private plane is justified for the president, but as you move down the hierarchy of government officials, it’s harder to justify,” Coupal said. “To the extent possible, the chief of police should be flying commercial airlines. It’s less expensive and Southwest will get you there faster.”

Bratton is not the only city official to use aircraft. The chief was accompanied by Councilman Jack Weiss on one helicopter flight last year, records show.

Many of the chief’s copter trips are short, including flights to Parker Center from various points and trips to LAX from his downtown office.

In one trip, Bratton flew from the Police Academy in Elysian Park to West Los Angeles, avoiding one of the most congested freeway corridors in the city. In another, he flew from the Wilshire police station to the Devonshire station in the Valley. He frequently flies from Parker Center to the police recruit training center in Westchester.

Two of the helicopter flights were taken during special incidents, including a trip with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa “around the city” during the massive immigration demonstrations May 1.

In September, Bratton toured Los Angeles by helicopter during a major power outage.

Lt. Paul Vernon noted that all of the helicopters are patrol copters that are on duty. “If there is a patrol need for the aircraft during the transport, the helicopter goes to that call first,” Vernon said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also owns a turboprop airplane and helicopters that are primarily used by department investigators. But Sheriff Lee Baca used the department’s plane 20 times in the last three years, including for 12 trips to Sacramento.

“We use it only for Sheriff’s Department business, and it has saved us a tremendous amount of money,” said spokesman Steve Whitmore.

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Times staff writer Robin Fields contributed to this report.


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