An audit of the Los Angeles Police Department Air Support Division revealed that 61% of flights were dedicated to activities not associated with the highest priority incidents.  -  Photo: Los Angeles Police Department/Canva/Government Fleet

An audit of the Los Angeles Police Department Air Support Division revealed that 61% of flights were dedicated to activities not associated with the highest priority incidents.

Photo: Los Angeles Police Department/Canva/Government Fleet

An audit of the Los Angeles Police Department's Air Support Division — the agency's airborne operation — revealed it spends millions of dollars a year to keep its helicopters in the air on an "almost continuous" basis, even for non-high-priority events.

The division is the largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation in the world, according to the LAPD website.

The division's budget is larger than most other city departments — with only the animal services and community investments for families departments having higher budgets.

A First-Time Audit for the Air Support Division

City Controller Kenneth Mejia noted that the first-time audit of the division was launched in response to calls from community members and organizations who requested more information regarding the costs and performance of the LAPD's helicopters.

The audit focused on the use of helicopters from fiscal years 2018 through 2022, examining whether the LAPD has "justified the need for the program’s current size and scope," which consists of 17 helicopters and more than 90 employees.

The city's general services department, which maintains the helicopter fleet, has 40 helicopter maintenance staff — nine supervisors and 31 full-time mechanics.

Each flight is operated by an aircrew of two sworn LAPD officers — a pilot and a tactical flight officer.

The helicopters used for patrol activity include Airbus AS350 B3e and Airbus AS350 B2 aircraft.

LAPD's Air Support Division by the Numbers

The audit noted that the agency spends $46.6 million every year on its air support division. That breaks down to about $127,805 per day or $2,916 per flight hour.

Helicopters logged an average of 16,000 hours of flight time each year during the audit.

The helicopters also burn approximately 761,600 gal. of fuel and release approximately 7,427 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This is equivalent to over 19 million miles driven by gas-powered passenger cars. 

A Look at the Audit's Findings

The city controller stated that while spending millions of dollars every year, there is "limited external oversight or monitoring of the ASD, its policies, practices, or whether the program, which was established in the 1970s, is in line with the city’s present-day needs."

Auditors noted that there has been limited public discussion about whether the size of the division and deployment strategy are aligned with the current needs of the city.

Mejia noted that due to not having an external audit of the program until now, inefficiencies, data reliability issues, and lack of transparency and performance monitoring have "gone unchecked."

The division spends an average of 20 hours per day in the air.

The air support division spends about 20 hours per day in the sky.  -  Photo: City of Los Angeles Controller/Canva

The air support division spends about 20 hours per day in the sky.

Photo: City of Los Angeles Controller/Canva

Calling Out Low-Priority Flights

The audit stated that most of the flight time for the division is "not devoted to high-priority events."

Over half of the flights — 61% — were dedicated to activities not associated with the highest priority incidents. The flights include transportation flights, general patrol time, and ceremonial flights.

Some of the transportation and ceremonial flights, the audit found, were an "inefficient, inappropriate use of city funds." Those included a six-hour passenger shuttle flight for the division-sponsored “Chili Fly-In” and a fly-by at a golf tournament.

The division conducted 783 ceremonial "fly-by" activities at golf tournaments, academy graduations, retirement ceremonies, etc. The authors found that for at least 161 of those activities, there was not enough information to determine what category of activity took place.

When identifying flight type, the authors determined that the agency overused the "other category," with it landing in at the second-highest amount of flight activities and hours.

When identifying flight type, auditors determined that the agency overused the "other category," with it landing in at the second-highest amount of flight activities and hours.  -  Photo: City of Los Angeles Controller/Canva

When identifying flight type, auditors determined that the agency overused the "other category," with it landing in at the second-highest amount of flight activities and hours.

Photo: City of Los Angeles Controller/Canva

Auditors recommended the agency update the division manual to establish policies for the planning and authorization of directed patrols, fly-bys, and administrative flights.

No Correlation with Crime Prevention

The audit also found that the helicopters spend a disporportionate amount of time in certain communities when compared to other areas and levels of alleged crime.

When on patrol, the division's practice is to prioritize responses to the most serious crimes. The audit revealed that when measuring flights by priority level, 39% of the flight time was spent responding to high-priority calls.

Between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, 39% of flights by the air support division were dedicated to the highest priority calls.  -  Photo: City of Los Angeles Controller/Canva

Between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, 39% of flights by the air support division were dedicated to the highest priority calls.

Photo: City of Los Angeles Controller/Canva

Based on the amount of time spent on flight activities other than these calls, the auditors determined that the agency and city policymakers need to consider whether the investment in air support is accomplishing its intended operational goal.

The agency justifies its air support division by pointing out that the city's large geographic footprint and frequent traffic congestion means the helicopters "may provide valuable assistance when rapid response is necessary."

According to the division, helicopter response time can range between 30 seconds and 2.5 minutes. Flight time from end-to-end within each coverage area is approximately six minutes, while flight time between the two farthest points of the city is approximately 20 minutes.

The audit's authors noted that there is no "persuasive empirical evidence" showing a clear link between helicopter patrols and crime reduction. The authors also pointed out that the agency has not done the work to collect necessary data to test such claims.

When comparing the agency's division size to those in nearby cities, the auditors determined that rightsizing opportunities may exist, and suggested the agency examine whether it can meet its air support needs with fewer airborne hours.

Auditors recommended the agency routinely complete a formal assessment of air support needs for patrol and incident response operations to assess the program’s current operations and whether rightsizing opportunities exist.

They also suggested the agency revise existing data fields or establish new data fields in its daily flight log to allow the division to track responses to crimes, as well as responses where the aircrew is directly responsibly for an apprehension or recovery of a firearm.

Noise Pollution Concerns

The audit also stated that the patrols disregard best practices for mitigating nuisance noise by flying below the recommended distance above ground level.

The authors stated that long-term noise exposure to aircraft can lead to decreased sleep quality, increased stress, cognitive impairment, reduced metabolism, and cardiovascular disease.

Concerns Over Flight Log Application Vendor

The agency does not have a formal contract with its flight log application vendor. The audit's authors believe this raises ethical, legal, and other concerns.

The software the division uses is custom-built, developed by a subcontractor of Airbus. The vendor developed the system at no cost to the agency. Auditors believe that the no-cost services could create pressure to select the vendor when purchasing other products.

"Without a contract, flight related data may be accessed by unauthorized persons and can be misused or withheld from the LAPD," the audit stated.

It also pointed out that there are "significant issues" with flight data collection and monitoring.

Auditors recommended the agency update the division manual to expand guidance on daily flight log data entry requirements on standardization, coordinate with the flight log system provider to develop data validation controls to prevent erroneous entries, and develop an agreement governing the relationship between the agency and the system provider.

LAPD Response to Audit

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore responded to the audit in a letter to the controller's office, pointing out several factors that were noted in the audit.

Moore said that the $2,916-per-hour cost that was established is not necessarily a fair calculation, because the value of the division's operationrs is not "merely a sum of the incidents contained in the flight logs."

"It is much more complex, and the rudimentary analysis performed in the audit demonstrates a lack of understanding of the complexities," Moore said.

Moore also said that the division does not operate solely for the police department. Another operation includes the city operations plan, among others. Because of this, Moore believes the hourly rate is an "overstatement."

The audit also did not appear to consider federal grants and investments in its cost analysis.

Moore also stated that the division provides an immeasurable benefit to the community.

"Their availability to immediately respond to spontaneous critical incidents, whether it be a crime against a person or property, discourages those from committing, or continuing, illegal activity. Any limit of [the division's] deployment would jeopardize the LAPD mission to safeguard life and property" Moore said.

Moore also stated that the division's operations help save lives, preventing officer-involved shootings by gaining an aerial perspective to lead officers on the ground to "better avenues of approach directly leading to safer outcomes for the community and officers."

Moore said that the audit included recommendations he believed were "worthy of consideration." Those include improving daily flight log entries and consulting with the city's IT agency on capturing a more comprehensive data set.

Moore refuted the methodology for some of the findings, as well as some of the recommendations. Among those, Moore stated that he believed the guidance on directed patrols and formal procedures for fly-bys and administrative flights was sufficient.

The auditors responded to each of the comments in Moore's letter. 

Moore released a statement to The Guardian, saying the department would review the final report, but reiterated that the helicopters "play a critical role in our public safety mission."

About the author
Christy Grimes

Christy Grimes

Senior Editor

Christy Grimes is a Senior Editor at Bobit, working on Automotive Fleet and Government Fleet publications. She has also written for School Bus Fleet.

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