Welcome to Sound’s Effects, Van Winkle’s look at the many consequences of noise pollution. It does more than keep us up.
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This past spring, Los Angeles launched a long-awaited system for residents to log helicopter-related noise complaints. The program, which accepted complaints via phone or online form, came after years of effort by the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Noise Coalition. Whether it will effectively cut down on noise pollution remains to be seen, but one gaping hole already exists: The program doesn’t allow complaints against police helicopters.

Unaffectionately referred to as the “ghetto bird,” the endlessly circling police chopper is as powerful a symbol of “Los Angeles” as the Hollywood sign — though it represents a much darker side of the city. As its unflattering pet name suggests, the choppers don’t usually hover above million-dollar homes in Malibu. They patrol-lower income neighborhoods spread out across the city. 

With 19 vehicles in the air, the LAPD boasts the country’s largest fleet of police helicopters. It started humbly in 1956 with a single craft dedicated to traffic control. By 1968, they had grown to four; by 1974, the Air Support Division comprised of 15 helicopters and 77 personnel.

The ghetto bird serves a rather Orwellian purpose: “to stop crimes before they start.”

Today’s fleet is responsible for tracking down stolen vehicles, enforcing perimeters and providing backup during traffic stops; it also stokes widespread concerns about police militarization. As the LA Times noted in March, the ghetto bird serves a rather Orwellian purpose: "to stop crimes before they start."

In recent years, the LAPD has deployed choppers to fly over communities where data suggests crime is more likely to occur. The logic is simple — a burglar on the verge of burgling will abandon ship when he hears the dull hum of an approaching helicopter. But critics say this only goes so far. If a criminal intends to rob a home, he’s going to do it eventually.

While police choppers might prevent crime in the short term, they do nothing to address the socioeconomic issues behind crime itself. Take South LA’s Newton Division, a poor community with above-average crime rates. The LAPD increased flights above Newton for several months in 2013, and reported later that crime fell when flights rose. This correlation is not necessarily causal, however. It cannot address the possibility that potential criminals simply did the deed in another division, and it certainly cannot speak to the long-term psychological or physical effects of enhanced police presence.

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How loud are the LAPD’s helicopters? Quite. The fleet includes two classes of airship: 14 AStars and five Bell Jet Rangers. These typically operate between altitudes of 500 and 800 feet, though they’ll come down to 300 feet for a closer look at license plates or fleeing criminals. For context, news helicopters hang out at around 1000 feet to avoid interfering with the LAPD.

The AStar is the quieter of the two and generates about 87 decibels of sound at 500 feet. The noise is comparable to city traffic, though traffic doesn’t station itself above your neighborhood at three a.m. on a weeknight. It is also well above the 65-decibel noise limit recommended by the Helicopter Association International; and since decibels increase logarithmically, a 20-decibel gain represents about four times the volume.

“If you’re not dealing with an emergency, you’ve gotta fly higher and quieter.”

These levels of noise have adverse health effects, including anxiety, high blood pressure, weight gain and sleep deprivation.

“If a helicopter’s flying within a mile of your home at two a.m. and your windows are open, you’re gonna wake up,” says Wayne Williams, a Sherman Oaks resident and activist with the Helicopter Noise Coalition. “It’s frustrating when they do this in the middle of the night, but the public reluctantly accepts it because of the safety concerns. What we’re trying to do now is tell them, if you’re not dealing with an emergency, you’ve gotta fly higher and quieter.”

There are many steps the LAPD could take to minimize noise, such as outfitting its helicopters with sound-dampening rotors. But that would require an investment the city is unwilling to make, according to KCET. When the Air Support Division investigated potential modifications, it found them to be either too expensive or detrimental to performance.

More dismayingly, the LAPD just doesn’t seem to care. One pilot told South California Public Radio that “people just have to deal with the fact that sometimes there will be a loud, low-flying helicopter.”

For the folks in charge, noise pollution isn’t a bug in the system; it’s a feature. This is well and good if you believe the mere buzzing of blades is enough to stop crime, but only the LAPD supports this contention — using studies from the 1960s and its own data, which is insufficient to conclude that helicopters are a successful deterrent.

“There is no way to know,” Dr. Geoffrey Alpert, a policing expert and professor at the University of South Carolina, told Van Winkle’s. “While the helicopters may move crime from one place to another, or delay it, I think a lot more work needs to be done to determine if it is a long-term deterrent.”

For the time being, it seems the only safe conclusion is that police helicopters are very effective at one thing: keeping innocent people awake.