On Dec. 11, the Los Angeles City Controller’s Office released the “first-ever” audit of the Los Angeles Police Department Air Support Division (ASD) accompanied by excessive self-congratulation. LAPD has the largest airborne fleet in the country, consisting of 17 helicopters, a fixed-wing twin-engine aircraft, and a pair of twin-engine fixed-wing planes. The controller’s biggest concern is the $46.6 million cost of the operation, which could be better spent.
It’s important, before diving into the details of an audit, to understand the role played by the controller in the governance of L.A. According to the city charter, the controller is a municipal accountant who keeps the city’s accounts up-to-date and pays its employees every second Wednesday. In theory, the position is nonpartisan and is elected. The campaigns for this job are usually unremarkable, if not completely uninteresting. During my years as an LAPD Officer and resident of Los Angeles, I only knew the name of the controller because it was on my paycheck.
Kenneth Mejia was elected in 2022 after three unsuccessful attempts to gain a seat in Congress – once as a Democrat and twice as a Green Party Candidate – he re-calibrated his ambitions and aimed at the less glamorous position of city controller. His “progressive”, anti-police stances, which were in line with the post-George Floyd politics of the city, helped him win with 63 percent. Mejia, since taking office, has been a shameless promoter. Doubtless, even two years into his term, he is contemplating a bid for a higher position. His audit of LAPD helicopter operations is a PR stunt in the service of his ambition. His name was prominently featured in press releases, social media posts, and other forms of publicity.
The audit is notable more for the things it doesn’t say about Air Support Division, than what it says. Mejia may have described his audit as “the first-ever” in a technical or legalistic sense, but ASD has been examined by city agencies for many years, even when I was working there. Mejia’s audit is expensive, but he is not the first politician to be excited about the prospect of spending millions on a project that could pay off in votes.
On the first page of the audit, flaws become apparent. As if it were a shocking revelation, “61 percent of flight time was devoted to activities that weren’t associated with the most important incidents, such as general patrol time and ceremonial flights, or transportation flights, we need some background information.” The LAPD operates two helicopters for 20 hours a day, weather permitting (which is most of the time). Los Angeles is home to 3.8 million people, spread out over 469 square miles. From its northernmost point, the San Fernando Valley, to its southernmost, the San Pedro Harbor, and from west to eastern, the East Side to the city limits, the city extends for 44 miles. Officers assigned to 21 stations patrol this vast area on the ground and are assisted by officers in helicopters. Aircrews are only able to spend 39 percent of their time on incidents that have high priority because the time allocated for ground units is also similar. By the time helicopters arrive overhead, the perpetrators will have already left.
The controller’s audit focused a lot on ASD costs but little attention was paid to its benefits. ASD responded to 200,137 incidents between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 14, 2023. In 40,189 cases, a helicopter arrived first at the scene to report a crime. ASD personnel were involved in 7,935 arrests for felony offenses, and they assisted with 47,333 other arrests. LAPD helicopters participated in 2,424 LAPD pursuits that involved ground units and 136 other pursuits that involved suburban police departments or California Highway Patrol. Keith Mejia can easily calculate how much money all these helicopters cost. But he and no one else can estimate the number of lives saved because airborne officers prevented certain incidents.
As an example, helicopters are often called in when officers see a stolen vehicle being driven down the street. Officers on the ground will initiate a traffic halt when a helicopter is spotted overhead. When the driver flees, and a chase is started, the helicopter can enter “tracking mode,” where ground units are backed off, and the eyes up in the air keep an eye on the stolen vehicle until the driver abandons the car, and then ground units can direct in to arrest the driver. The tracking tactic is a money-saving one, given that any collision resulting from a police chase results in a lawsuit. Some of these lawsuits result in large payouts for the city. Los Angeles, without helicopters, would adopt policies similar to those seen in other cities, which avoids the dangers of car chases while allowing criminals the freedom to flee at will.
The Los Angeles Times, as expected, reported on the audit without any critical analysis, reiterating points Mejia considered concerning, but that are easily explained by a simple examination. The Times, for example, reported that “the affluent areas of Pacific division accounted only for 3.3% of LAPD’s helicopter engagements but 6.1% of Part 1 incidents, according to the audit.” If Mejia or his auditors had done any research, they would know that a large part of the Pacific Division is off-limits to helicopters because of air traffic restrictions at LAX and Santa Monica Airports. The Times made a similar mistake when it reported on police helicopters in February.
LAPD officers have been waiting months for their back pay. It would be best for the L.A. Controller’s Office to stay on its turf and focus on its basic duties before attempting to change the way that police are conducted in Los Angeles.