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LAPD will not pursue complaints about noise from low-flying police choppers

A Los Angeles Police Department Helicopter hovers over Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles on April 13, 2013.
Grant Slater/KPCC
A Los Angeles Police Department Helicopter hovers over Highland Park in northeast Los Angeles on April 13, 2013.

This is one in a series on the LAPD's helicopter fleet. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. 

Not a few Angelenos have been jolted awake by the sound of police helicopters circling their neighborhood. There is a number you can call to inquire about what is happening, but it won't do much good to file a complaint: LAPD policy dictates that the department shall not pursue complaints about noise from low-flying helicopters. 

The latest buzz over chopper noise in L.A. started with Carmegeddon One. News helicopters floated for hours over the freeway shutdown, ticking off residents in the Sepulveda Pass area. That ruckus led to a helicopter noise meeting last year where news media executives pledged to coordinate with each other to use fewer choppers for coverage. 

But Mike Altan of Toluca Lake says the police are just as culpable.  

"It's a fact that they choose whatever flight patterns they choose to do," he said. "They fly at whatever altitude with complete and utter disregard for the residents below.  They don't care." 

There are two LAPD helicopters in the air — one north and one south — 20 hours every day, patrolling and responding to calls. The airships generally fly in the 500-800 foot range, said Lt. Phillip Smith, the assistant commander of the LAPD's Air Support Division. 

RELATED: Photo slideshow of LAPD's air force on KPCC's AudioVision

Sometimes helicopters will dip as low as 300 feet to get a look at a license plate. That can get your windows vibrating. That's one reason why some people complain. But not everyone ticked off by chopper noise does. Mike Altan says he never has. 

"No, you think they are going to care about particular guy calling?" he asks rhetorically. "They'll think I'm a kook or something." 

There's no way to know how many people call the Air Support Division to ask about noisy helicopters. The department doesn't log those calls. We do know that during the six months between October 2012  and April 2013, only 12 people who called said, "I don't care what your reason is, I want to speak to your supervisor." Lt. Smith says those calls are documented and passed on to the watch commander. 

"The watch commander will talk with them and they'll usually have some type of disposition," he said, adding that in some cases the caller just gets angry and hangs up. 

If that does happen, people can lodge an official complaint. But they needn't bother. It's LAPD policy not to pursue complaints about "low flying airships." 

Lt. Smith defends the policy. He says if there's police activity in an area, people just have to deal with the fact that sometimes there will be a loud, low-flying helicopter. 

"And in that case, generally, we're not going to take a complaint," said Smith. "It's asked and answered and it's obvious."

According to LAPD statistics, police helicopters spend a lot of time over the 77th Division in South Los Angeles. Last year, they responded to the most calls there and were over the area the longest: nearly 990 hours, or about 41 days. Katrina Watkins spends a lot of time in the 77th, but she shrugs it all off.

The police choppers are not making too much noise, she said. "They just letting us know [that] right in your area something's going on, maybe not to come out your house, maybe to turn on the news."

Watkins grew up near Mt. Carmel Park in the 77th. Her family still lives in the area. As she talked, at least four LAPD helicopters flew over a few blocks down, near Gage and Vermont.   

"Only if something happening really, really bad, that's when they come low," she said.

An unscientific survey of people living in East L.A. and other areas of heavy chopper traffic turned up some of the same feelings. So your attitude about police helicopter noise may relate to how much crime is in your community. 

Or you may be like Miguel Hernandez, an L.A. native who lives in Reseda. He just doesn't hear the choppers anymore.

"Yeah like anything else, once you start getting used to it, it's just part of the background noise," he said.

If helicopter noise does drive you crazy,  new FAA rules expected next week may offer some relief. But they probably won't apply to fire or police choppers. So we'll most likely remain vulnerable to being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night by an airborne black and white with a searchlight.

You can call the LAPD Air Support Division with a question or complaint about police helicopter activity at 213 485-2600.