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Venice's Aero Police enforced the law from on high

Only in L.A.

When Otto "Swede" Meyerhofer joined the Venice police force in 1919, he guessed that few prisoners would attempt to jump from his vehicle.

That's because he piloted an 8-cylinder biplane.

He was the first member of Venice's Aero Police — and one of the first sky cops in the nation.

"He will chase speeders, look into reports of smuggling, go over the bay in search of violators of our fishing regulations and help rescue drowning persons," said A.E. Coles, the mayor of Venice, which was then a city.

The beach resort's small police force turned out for Meyerhofer's swearing-in and "only the two motorcycle officers displayed any signs of jealousy," a Times reporter wrote in jest.

When it came time for Meyerhofer to stage a demonstration flight, Police Chief T.H. Griffin turned down an invitation to ride along — unless he could "keep one foot on the ground," Griffin said.

Instead, a resident volunteered to go aloft as the prisoner and Meyerhofer saw no reason to handcuff him in the sky.

He explained that he would apply the manacles to a prisoner only after landing, figuring no bad guy would be crazy enough to start a ruckus in the sky.

For all the talk of the aero cops as crime fighters, the Venice Evening Vanguard newspaper foresaw another valuable role for them: publicity vehicles.

The newspaper proudly wrote in 1919 that the formation of the Aero Police was "probably one of the most original and world-beating stunts ever pulled off in California."

While hastening to explain that Meyerhofer would be "a real, simon-pure" cop, the Vanguard pointed out that his swearing-in was covered by a "line of cameras grinding off foot after foot of film for various motion picture weeklies and other pictures that will be thrown on the screens all over the world."

Venice was already the nation's stunt-flying capital, a distinction that dated to 1914 when movie producer Thomas Ince built an airport in the city.

The aero cops added to that reputation. Meyerhofer — himself a stunt pilot — would be based at the airport and use his own plane, which bore the words VENICE AERO POLICE.

But his unit, whose effectiveness was limited by a lack of radio communication, played a role that was in large part ceremonial.

One of Meyerhofer's first assignments was to take two members of royalty, "the Count and Countess Casella Tamburini of Paris," for a ride over the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains.

The countess described the flight as "bully, as you Americans say," in a Gallic imitation of Theodore Roosevelt. Asked his opinion, the "count shrugged his shoulders in acquiescence," the Vanguard said.

A few days later, Meyerhofer took two visiting missionaries aloft and said afterward, "I take them just as close to heaven as it is possible to do."

A few weeks later, The Times published a photo of Meyerhofer flying Milton H.B. Miller and his wife on a "new-style honeymoon trip through the clouds."

"People living in Los Angeles now bring their visitor friends to the field and there are only a few who do not enjoy a ride" with the Aero Police, the Vanguard said.

In 1922, the sky cops added three more pilots, including Frank Clarke, who had an arrest on his record.

The arrest didn't hurt his job prospects. In fact, it underscored Clarke's talent as a stunt pilot.

He had been pinched the year before when he flew a plane off the 100-foot-long roof of the Los Angeles Railway Building at 11th Street and Broadway for a scene in the movie "Stranger Than Fiction." Charges were later dropped.

Alas, Venice's Aero Police lasted only a few years, their demise brought about by the sale of the town's airfield to real estate developers in 1923 and the decision by the city in 1925 to become part of Los Angeles.

Some of the sky cops met with a sad end. Meyerhofer was sliced in half by a plane propeller.

Clarke died in a plane crash in 1948 while performing one last stunt: trying to drop a bag of fertilizer on a friend's mountain cabin as a joke.

Another aerial cop committed suicide after being linked to a robbery ring.

Summarizing the impact of the Aero Police, aviation historian H.H. Wynne observed that when they were formed, there were visions of them swooping in on a bandit's car with one officer climbing "onto the wing with a shotgun and a parachute."

But, Wynne added, "the number of criminals captured by this procedure caused very little crowding of the Venice jail."

In fact, a search of The Times' database could find only one instance of a wing-walker in a police uniform in Southern California.

It was Frank Clarke. He did it in a movie.

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