Why does Oakland need helicopters?

A few weeks ago, the Oakland City Council approved an agreement with the Port of Oakland to let us lease a building for $1/year so we can store the Oakland Police Department’s helicopters.

According to the staff report (PDF!):

The Oakland Police Department (OPD) Air Support Unit started in 1971 under a Federal Traffic Grant. The OPD helicopters operated from the Oakland Intemational Airport and were housed at the North Field, inside Hangar One Building L-118.

During the mid-seventies passenger traffic increased dramatically at the Oakland Airport. Consequently, the Oakland Police Department moved the Air Support Unit to the South Field to assist in airport security. The helicopters were transferred from inside the hangars to exterior parking. Exposure to the external environment has caused substantial corrosive damage to the aircrafts. Approximately $100,000 has been spent to offset weather related damage to the helicopters since being stored outside.

The report later offers this as one of the benefits of the lease agreement:

Maintaining a viable Airport Support Unit will ensure that this division of the OPD continues to have a positive and direct impact in fighting crime, providing support to the Homeland Security operations, giving assistance to the Oakland Fire Department and the citizens of Oakland.

I didn’t even know until I saw this agenda item that we even had helicopters. What does the OPD Air Support Unit do? Why is it necessary? Does anyone know? I’m asking, not judging.

14 thoughts on “Why does Oakland need helicopters?

  1. Chris Kidd

    Helicopter support can be used in a lot of different ways by the police department. I’ll let the posters who are in the department really flesh it out, but there are a few things I can identify.

    They are used to follow fleeing vehicles, especially when or if OPD chooses to pull back squad cars for fear of causing injury in a residential neighborhood. Their spotlights can be used for multiple purposes in nighttime operations to back up OPD action. They can give support and reconnaissance for firefighting or traffic emergenecies. I’m sure there’s other stuff as well.

    Also, they’re commonly known as “ghetto birds” in the flatlands. I think that’s reason enough to keep them around.

  2. Mike Hardy

    You haven’t had the joy of the circling helicopters with the massively bright spotlight around your neighborhood?

    Lucky you

    Apparently they help catch criminals, in something called “crime fighting”, which Oakland may or may not be doing, but definitely uses helicopters for regardless

  3. Colleen

    The helicopters are used for helping locate and follow criminals fleeing from the scene of burglaries, robberies, shootings, etc. They are also used to help detect developing sideshow activity before it gets ‘off the hook’ and there is absolute gridlock. Because they’re in the air, the can get a perspective not seen on the ground. Seeing them in action I believe they’re helpful.

    Although I hate it when they’re circling, we’ve grown to know the sound as a warning not to go outside and keep an eye out for supsicious activity.

    My only complaint is they’re expensive to operate and maintain.

  4. Max Allstadt

    V -

    I’ve seen choppers in my area a lot. It’s usually pretty obvious that they’re helpful.

    Here’s an example: A few months back, a couple of idiots robbed a bank, and then hung out at a liquor store near my house. At some point, one of these rocket scientists brandishes a weapon. The cops get called, and the idiots hop in to a nearby back yard and hole up.

    So, we have three stupid people, armed to the teeth, in the back yard on a block with multiple detached single family homes, each separated from it’s neighbor by a 6 to 8 foot fence. Making sure the idiots don’t hop fences from yard to yard is very very easy when you have a helicopter. The alternative is dozens of cops sweeping dozens of yards, all risking getting shot everytime they turn a blind corner.

    If we’re going to be callous enough to evaluate this just based on dollars… One dead cop certainly costs more that two hours of a helicopter in the air. And that’s just money. A dead cop is a tragedy. It’s also increases the likelihood that at least one of the criminals gets killed. And it demoralizes the force. And it hurts recruitment.

    So yeah, buy them another helicopter. Buy them two more if they say they need them.

  5. V Smoothe Post author

    I do see helicopters out a lot, although I’ve always wondered what they were doing. Now that you guys explain it, it seems somewhat self-evident. This is an excellent example of what a dear friend calls a “stupifany“.

    This report (PDF!) provides a good explanation of the activities of the OPD helicopters.

  6. chester

    How about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) along with helicopters? Oakland would probably save more money by having a combined fleet rather than focusing on helicopters alone. UAV’s could stay in flight for longer hours without refueling and provide “real time” surveillance without risk to the pilots.

  7. ConcernedOakFF

    Only one helo is flying at a time. It is an invaluable piece of equipment, both for the PD and the FD (we use the helo for aerial reconnaissance of wildland fires and large structure fires, as well as night time infrared surveillance of fires making sure the are actually out…)

    I would venture to guess that at least 1/3 of criminals are apprehended with the use of “Argus” (the name of the OPD helicopter)…

  8. Robert

    Why don’t we just get a predator drone – one of the armed ones. We wouldn’t need to bother with the arrest then. ;-)

  9. Max Allstadt

    Thanks FF. I was hoping someone officially involved would chime in and back me up on my opinion here. You just beefed up the reasons for keeping the chopper about five times over.

    Drone shmone. Just nowhere near as useful.

  10. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    ConcernedOakFF – thanks for passing on that info. I had no idea that the fire department also used the helicopter, so that makes me feel better about the huge expense.

    I must admit that about a year ago there was a report of a burglar at 4th & Jackson in the Cost Plus HQ and the original call was of burglars on the rooftop. For over an hour the helicopter twirled around above, while over a dozen OPD cars and cops had every corner blocked off and a dog team searching inside the building. I was sort of shocked at the effort they were expending (no burglar was ever caught, nor was their any sign of theft or entry. It seemed excessive, but admittedly I’m no police officer. All I could mutter about was the gas being wasted in the air.

  11. Deep East reader

    As a resident of the deep east area of Oakland, I see and hear the helicopters pretty much every day. And frankly, it feels like quite an invasion of privacy having them flying overhead, shining their lights on us as we have a peaceful BBQ with friends in our back yard. There was a car smashup a few days ago on 88th & Macarthur, and I called it in. Instead of a car, the OPD sent a helicopter. WTF? Seems like an awful waste of resources to me to send a helicopter instead of, or as a scout for, the car that will eventually need to come.

    Of course, the car actually coming is doubtful. We’ve had a predator harassing us right outside our bedroom window, called the OPD, and never had an officer show up. A few years back, I went to a neighborhood meeting, and an OPD rep came and told us that after 1 am there are only 35 officers on duty in all of Oakland. I wonder if this is still true.

  12. jif

    The helicopter is useful and necessary for all the reasons stated above and more.

    Deep East, the helicopter is not trying to invade your privacy. When it is circling an area of interest they are looking for the described suspects, not what you have on the grill. The reality is that Deep East Oakland has a lot of suspects. As to the question regarding the number of cops on the street at any given time I suggest you not ask those who appear to be in charge (high ranking officers), but someone who is actually out there. If the only person willing to answer is the high ranking guy, ask to see the duty detail for that day and do the math yourself. Hope you don’t have any heart problems!

  13. ConcernedOakFF

    THh helicopter was probably not dispatched for the reported car wreck, but was most likely already in the area overhead. They do patrol just like a car does, it takes way too long to launch them just when you need them.

    You are correct “deep east” that there are at times only 35-40 officers in the entire of city of Oakland on patrol.

    As far as answering calls, they prioritize them with respect to life hazard. If you were to report that someone was possibly outside your window, they would respond to almost every call that involved a confirmed crime first, as well as all calls that involved a possible need for a medical response.