It's the sort of escapade Los Angeles has long been known for: a man in a stolen car with an AK-47 drives dangerously through the streets of rush-hour L.A. with a tail of about 8 police cars directly behind, and even more following a short ways back. The driver had allegedly carjacked the vehicle from its owner earlier that day – a slightly less concerning crime than the homicide he allegedly committed in July. The car's electronic tracking system had alerted police to its location and a chase ensued for more than an hour – at relatively low speed – through the city. An LAPD helicopter trailing overhead and a plethora of black-and-whites behind, the driver had few options for escape.
He eventually misjudged an intersection's cross traffic and crashed into another car, bringing the vehicle pursuit to a halt. Climbing out of the car, he stumbled into the street where, with the car he just hit standing in as a shield, he got into a brief firefight with the police. He was promptly shot, arrested and taken off to the hospital with critical but nonlethal wounds.
In addition to the LAPD helicopter following above, there were at least seven other helicopters in the sky at the time. But unlike the short orbits the police helicopter had been spinning above the fleeing car, these other helicopters were hovering in place much farther from the action. Farther, but just close enough for their cameras to stream the whole incident to local TV news stations. Live, local, late-breaking, et cetera.
Los Angeles is the undeniable car chase capital of the world; LAPD's Air Support Division was engaged in a total of 245 vehicle pursuits in 2011 alone. The L.A. basin is also considered one of the most congested airspaces in the country, with nearly a dozen major and less-than major airports, a sprawling mishmash of aerially-monitored freeways, a vibrant helicopter tourism business, the world's largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation, and one of the country's major media markets.
When there's a homicide suspect holding an AK-47 and weaving a stolen car through the dense streets of the central city, following the pursuit from the skies is so common as to be almost unremarkable. But from inside a helicopter's cockpit, it's a high-adrenaline dance of air-to-ground and air-to-air coordination. With loaded weapons, crowded skies and a city full of innocent bystanders, chasing bad guys through the city of Los Angeles is a complex operation that's got more moving parts than all the helicopter blades chopping their way through the city's skies.
• • • • •
Spinning tight, counter-clockwise circles in the night sky on a recent Friday flight, an LAPD helicopter's spotlight turns a wide circle of asphalt 500 feet below into a little bit of daylight. At it center, a man lays on the street next to the suspected stolen car he'd just been driving, his arms and legs spread wide, as a handful of officers close in to make the arrest. "That's it," says Sergeant Mike Daly, steering the helicopter off on a tangent from its orbit, heading back out across a city more than 465 miles square. Friday nights are busy for the LAPD's Air Support Division.
Calls come in over the radio for air responses all over the city. On Fridays and Saturdays there are three LAPD helicopters in the air for most of the day; the rest of the week there are two. The sprawling city, carved into halves or even thirds, creates a vast landscape of pursuit potential. A suspicious man has been spotted on the roof of a warehouse on 60th Street. A woman stumbles across trespassers running out of her house in Boyle Heights. Shots fired near MacArthur Park. The helicopter cuts across the city, adding its spotlight sporadically to the twinkling cityscape below.
Sitting next to Daly is Matt Fryer, the tactical flight officer, whose job is not to fly but to figure out exactly where the helicopter should go and to pick out – from multiple concurrently broadcasting police radio frequencies – which incidents need air support. The information streams out at an almost indecipherable speed and quantity, but Fryer can pick out the ones to follow and the ones to ignore.
"Where was that one?" asks Daly, who's listening to some of those police frequencies but also some others to communicate with air traffic controllers and whatever other aircraft are in the sky.
"It's in Wilshire," Fryer says, referring to one of LAPD's 21 divisions. "But he's inside a house." They fly on.
At all times, Fryer and other tactical flight officers on duty will be listening to up to five radio frequencies: one carrying every incident being reported across the city, another citywide frequency, one for whatever division the helicopter happens to be flying over, and another two for navigation. There's also a special frequency to share information with the FBI during bank robberies, and another tuned into any nearby law enforcement agency. Overlapping voices cram uncountable words into quick seconds: "…seven eight twenty-two is southbound on Crenshaw approaching Martin Luther King…" "…suspect eight one nine…" "…making an eastbound turn…" "…Larchmont and Third…"
In Daly's ear is the sound of other aircraft maneuvering over the city. Fire helicopters work on a hillside blaze. A medical helicopter, fresh from a drop-off at the children's hospital, heads west. A news helicopter follows a blur of red lights backed up on a freeway behind a fender bender. Crossing into the airspace near one of the region's airports spurs a conversation seeking clearance from an air traffic tower. They all tell each other where they are and where they're going and everybody goes about their business.
These fragments of crime and pursuit and location form a language unique to this particular business of operating what police frequently refer to as "flying police cars." Speaking and understanding this language requires a sharp mind, good eyes and a lot of reliance on the people and aircraft on the other ends of those many radios.
• • • • •
On the evening of September 11, 2012, the day the armed homicide suspect was driving a stolen car through the city, one of the two LAPD helicopters in the sky was alerted to the situation. Eventually the ground and air crews found the car and commenced what would become more than an hour of pursuit through various parts of the city.
In these types of chases, the LAPD has learned to be very hands-off. They trail a suspect and wait for them to make a mistake. No one's hanging out of a squad car shooting out tires. For the most part they don't even lay down tire poppers or ram into the vehicles. They just follow behind, as calmly as possible.
From the air, the helicopter pilot and the tactical flight officer act as playmakers, trying to figure out where the suspect is heading, warning officers on the ground when congestion or pedestrians or schools are coming up, and trying to make sure no police car ends up killing some family out for an evening drive. The helicopter is literally two sets of eyes in the sky, calling the shots on where squad cars should go and what they should do – all in an effort to prevent collisions involving LAPD and innocent bystanders. Sergeant George Gonzalez, who started flying for Air Support Division back in the '90s, says that the helicopter's job is to basically provide a verbal picture to the units below. "What we can see from 700 feet is a hundred times more than any ground unit can see," he says.
Neither Gonzalez, Fryer nor Daly were on duty at the time of last week's pursuit, but they both know how tense and busy and dangerous an event like that can be.
"They are exciting. They are not fun. It's a lot of work," Daly says. "In the past, the people most likely to die in a police pursuit were innocent bystanders killed by the police. Not anymore."
There can also be danger in the sky. With one police helicopter and seven news helicopters all flying around the same moving target, the risk of airborne accidents is high – and potentially deadly. In 1966, an LAPD helicopter and a media helicopter covering traffic on the freeways near Dodger Stadium collided, killing everyone on board. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration established an air-to-air communication channel for aircraft to share location and flight path information. That frequency is still used today.
In addition to that communication, the L.A. media and police have an unofficial agreement to keep their distance. "It's basically just a goodwill understanding that says over police operations, the police helicopter has to be the lowest helicopter there so we can do our job," says Gonzalez. "What we ask them is to give us 500 feet or more above us – that gives us some maneuverability – and laterally 1,000 feet."
"We try to keep that separation because we've got to stay out of their way, and they want us out of their way," says Fred Grullon, operations manager at Angel City Air, a helicopter company that contracts out pilots and camera operators to four of the L.A. news stations. "But at the same time, we have a right to cover the news."
Gonzalez says a feather or two gets ruffled from time to time over news media coming in too close to a pursuit, but overall, the skies tend to be friendly. And professional, according to FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor. "There's widespread acknowledgement that the media helicopters, at least here in L.A., and the police operate extremely safely, very effectively, and they communicate effectively."
Both the police and the media have been blamed over the years for perpetuating these car chases by inspiring copycats. For some criminals, the thinking goes, the chance to create a high-drama, high-speed televised event may be worth a little extra jail time. "Police pursuits are not entertainment," then-Mayor Jim Hahn told a press conference in 2003, urging the media to reconsider their coverage of pursuits. William Bratton, then the LAPD Chief of Police, agreed.
In the aftermath of last week's pursuit and another later in the week, the Los Angeles Police Protective League Board of Directors published a blog post referring to TV coverage of pursuits as a "bloodsport." Live media coverage, they argue, can endanger the public.
But it's not just the media that's getting the blame. A 1997 report for the U.S. Department of Justice found that public support for the use of police helicopters in pursuits decreased the more people were told about their potential dangers. And support falls farther when helicopters are used to respond to non-serious crimes.
The police argue that the benefits of helicopters outweigh the costs. They call the helicopter a "force multiplier" – one that's able to expand their ability to respond to crime across a vast city and, not insignificantly, to reduce the accidents and expensive liability that have resulted from the reckless pursuits of the past. And while mid-air collisions can occur, they are extremely rare.
Things run fairly smoothly between the media and the police because many of the airborne media used to be airborne police. Grullon says the majority of his company's pilots and photographers are former LAPD and L.A. Sherriff's Department pilots. He says they know what the police on scene need to do because they've done it themselves. Sometimes, they even help out.
"If the media gets there before we do and they're shooting film, we'll call on that frequency and let them know 'Hey police 18 is heading to that pursuit in Van Nuys Divisions' and you'll hear 'Channel Four is over it right now' and they'll say 'It looks like there's two of them on motorcycles,'" says Gonzalez. "There is a huge rapport between us, and some of the relationships are beyond just a voice on the radio. Some of them go back to being co-workers."
And so, like it's happened hundreds of times over the past few years, the police helicopter on the scene that day helped call the shots from the sky, helping to bring the suspect into custody without any major accident or problem. The news media helicopters hovering up ahead got their live feeds back to the station for broadcast and the Southern California TV viewing audience was able, yet again, to briefly engage themselves with a bit of homegrown drama. After the handcuffs clicked and the ambulance sped away, the skies above the scene gradually emptied out, with the news media off to the next story and the police off to the next case.
• • • • •
Touching back down on the heliport surface after a recent round through the city, Daly glances over at Fryer as he turns the helicopter off.
"Well, we cheated death one more time," he says, dry as the desert.
"It happens," says Fryer, with a nonchalance that underscores the routine banality of it all. It does happen – flying a helicopter over the city, dodging airplanes and blimps and media copters and FAA regulations, chasing down people in fast moving cars who could, at any moment, do something incredibly stupid. And it will continue to happen in this city, where there's probably at least another 50 or so vehicle pursuits to come this year alone. The drama and coordination and stress and familiar pattern of it all will be there when they happen. And then, like yesterday's newscast, they'll fade away until the next one.
All photos: Nate Berg