On March 10, 1987, the Costa Mesa Police Department lost two officers — the only two ever lost in the line of duty in the department’s history.
Officers James D. “Dave” Ketchum and John W. “Mike” Libolt were killed when the helicopter they were piloting was involved in a mid-air collision with another law enforcement helicopter.
Eagle was engaged in a vehicle pursuit of a career criminal in a stolen car. Thursday was the anniversary of the accident — and their untimely deaths.
This accident could have also ended Costa Mesa’s air support program. However, the Police Department and city leaders were forward-thinking and committed to air support as a crime-fighting tool.
Costa Mesa first implemented air support in 1971. By the time of the 1987 accident, the program had matured and become more sophisticated. Later that same year, the Santa Ana Police Department saw the merit of air support and contracted service from Costa Mesa. This made economic sense and also made a good partnership because the cities share a large border area.
Not long after Costa Mesa launched its air support program, the city of Newport Beach followed suit. Both cities continued to operate independently until 1997, when a joint-powers authority was formed to combine Costa Mesa and Newport Beach’s efforts and continued to service Santa Ana by contract.
The new unit was formed as AirBorne Law Enforcement Services, or ABLE. The combination of resources was immediately recognized to be a cost-saver, and the crews now serviced one contiguous 80-square-mile area covering three cities.
Nationally, ABLE has become a model of joint-regional use of assets. So much so that other agencies frequently contacted ABLE to gain insight as to the organizational setup and operation. ABLE performs at a high level and averages more than 5,000 annual calls for service.
As a result, the air crews make nearly 1,000 arrests per year. Many of those are suspects who would have otherwise eluded capture. Each year, hundreds of criminals go to jail because Eagle spotted suspicious activity.
The Costa Mesa Police Department has a long tradition of serving the citizens from the ground and in the air.
The year marks the 24th year since Dave Ketchum and Mike Libolt’s untimely deaths.
It also marks the 41st year that air support assets have served Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. Policing from the air was a concept for which both Ketchum and Libolt lived, and ultimately died.
The year also marks the year that ABLE will be dissolved. ABLE is working to make the program a more regional asset to further reduce the cost of the program and keep it viable.
ROB DIMEL is Costa Mesa police officer and city resident.