They say sheriff’s helicopters buzz lowest over Black homes, and they’re out to prove it

A helicopter with "sheriff" on the tail flies above a city.
An L.A. County Sheriff’s Department helicopter flies near the Greek Theatre.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Law enforcement helicopters routinely buzz around Greater Los Angeles. But in certain neighborhoods, they swoop in — low and loud. So say two community groups that are studying the effects of helicopters on the health of county residents.

“The higher the proportion of Black population, the lower the altitude of the helicopter,” said Nicholas Shapiro, an assistant professor of biology and society at UCLA and director of the Carceral Ecologies Lab.

The groups are suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, saying it has not released records about its helicopter fleet for more than six months.


By not releasing the records, the department is keeping researchers from better understanding the effects of helicopters on the health of county residents — especially on their sleep, Shapiro said.

The lab and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition say they’ve been studying law enforcement’s use of helicopters for more than a year.

Through the public records request, the groups are seeking the fleet’s tail numbers, as well as information about how many people work on fleet maintenance and within the department’s Aero Bureau. The groups are also looking for the budget and financial documents related to operating and maintaining the fleet, according to the request filed July 27.

That information, Shapiro maintains, will help the public better understand the “true costs” of the helicopter fleet. In the city of L.A., Controller Kenneth Mejia recently announced that his department was starting an audit of the effectiveness of LAPD helicopter operations.

“Helicopters are a real nuisance in L.A.,” said Matyos Kidane, a community organizer with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. “That is especially true if you’re Black or brown, if you live in a neighborhood that’s predominantly Black or brown or poor.”

Shapiro said the groups had found that in every census block of L.A. County that is more than 40% Black, the median elevation of helicopters was below 1,000 feet, the “minimum safe altitude” for congested areas as set by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA notes helicopters may be operated at a lower altitude “if the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface.”


Kidane said having low-flying helicopters could cause issues with residents’ sleep. It also could create a threatening atmosphere for communities that are already weary of the police, he said.

In one instance, the noise from a low-flying Los Angeles Police Department helicopter led to confusion among officers who were shouting to hear one another and ended in a suspect’s shooting death.

About a month after the groups filed the public records request, they received a response from the Sheriff’s Department that it had identified “responsive records” and was reviewing the documents. But the department has yet to release the documents or issue any response, the groups said in the lawsuit.

The groups said they filed a similar request to the LAPD, which was fulfilled in October.

The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that it hadn’t had an opportunity to review the complaint.