Trouble above

Ricardo Costa and Northwest Pasadena residents push to ground noisy and invasive police helicopters

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/17/2009

Every day Northwest Pasadena residents Roli Gostelow and Keith Dsouza watch, hear and feel military helicopters manned by Pasadena police officers circle their neighborhood. These loud, ominous metal birds have been flying low over homes and businesses for years, leaving people with the uneasy feeling that they are being as much watched as protected. Many residents compare their neighborhood to a police state, and constant surveillance from the air is a big reason for that widely held perception. 
After months of trying to get city officials to listen to their concerns, Gostelow, a 26-year-old software systems engineer, and Dsouza, a 27-year-old grad student at Cal State LA, feel ignored and violated.
Tired of the daily nuisance that Pasadena police helicopters cause — particularly in economically challenged Northwest Pasadena, where crime rates are notably higher than other, more affluent neighborhoods of the city — some residents, including former Green Party congressional candidate Ricardo Costa, are calling for the grounding of the loud, Vietnam-era copters that the Police Department received for free through a military surplus program. 
Costa is also forming a citizens group to call for the demilitarization of Pasadena, including eliminating the military helicopters, which have been stripped of their armor plates and gun turrets, from the department’s Air Operations Division fleet.

“It feels more like surveillance than crime prevention,” Costa told the Weekly. “I wouldn’t mind as much if they flew over Caltech just as much as they fly over my neighborhood.”
Police spokeswoman Janet Pope-Givens told the newspaper that the majority of calls for service come from Northwest Pasadena, adding that more noise complaints come from Northwest because of the high volume of calls for help, and because the heliport is located in that area, near the Rose Bowl.
“We put our resources where we have the most calls,” she said. “[Northwest Pasadena] is the most densely populated area of the city. With that comes additional calls for service.”

Never quieter

Since 2007, the department has been using its helicopters to help fight street crime and respond to low-priority calls. Last year, according to the Air Operations Division Web site, police helicopters responded to more than 10,000 calls that led directly to more than 600 arrests. When not responding directly to calls, helicopter crews partner with 10 other cities in San Gabriel Valley in a program called the Foothill Air Support Team, or FAST, to heavily monitor problem locations. 
“The number of [squad] cars deployed in any of [Pasadena’s] five service areas is fluid and based on calls for service generated or other activities in any given area,” Pope-Givens explained. She said statistics for numbers of hours spent by police helicopters patrolling and responding to calls are difficult to calculate because they cover the entire city and are not computed for the five service areas. This uncertainty has led Dsouza and Gostelow to question how effective the helicopters really are.
Capt. Robert Mulhall, head of the department’s Air Operations Division, told the Weekly that the helicopters are a proven crime-fighting tool.
“If a helicopter is circling a neighborhood, something bad is going on there,” Mulhall said. “If anyone has a question, just call the heliport and ask. We’ll let them know why the helicopter is there.”
Dsouza and Gostelow feel that the money used to keep helicopters in the air every day would be better spent putting more officers on the streets of Northwest Pasadena. According to the Police Department’s Summary of Appropriations and Revenues, the Air Operations Division has a budget of more than $3.3 million in fiscal year 2009-10. To put that in some context, at the same time the city of Pasadena is facing an $11 million budget deficit.
“We agree that police presence in Northwest Pasadena is a good idea, but these helicopters infringe on everyone’s quality of life,” Dsouza said. 
Costa noted that his family had to acquire several white noise machines in order for his children to fall asleep.
The Air Operations Division is in the process of replacing the nearly 40-year-old helicopters and equipment with newer, somewhat quieter models. In October, the City Council approved $500,000 for new helicopter equipment, including a thermal-imaging camera and a computer mapping system. In June, the council approved a $2.4 million purchase of a new MD500E helicopter, which has five overhead blades instead of two and four tail rotor blades, not two. According to Mulhall, most of the noise, such as the loud whooping sound, comes from the two-bladed tail rotor.
Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard told the Weekly that the Police Department is “committed to be as sensitive as possible to the impact of helicopter noise, both through routes that are taken and the equipment that [they] use. We’ve recently ordered a very modern helicopter, a new piece of machinery that is quieter than ever before.”

Watching from above

Mulhall said he is sympathetic to residents’ concerns about noise, but added that “we have a job to do.” According to Mulhall, the helicopters are effective for three reasons: speed advantage, observation capabilities and the omnipresence of an aircraft to deter crime.
“If a bad guy is jumping fences, an officer in a helicopter is in a better position [than officers on the ground] to respond because they have a three-dimensional view and can see into multiple backyards, as opposed to just the front of a house,” he said.

Dsouza countered Mulhall’s argument, saying, “Why can’t officers on the ground hop over the same fences the bad guy does? That’s not an appropriate justification for the use of helicopters.”
Gostelow added, “I find the captain’s justification, the fact that he said a helicopter crew can see into backyards, quite disturbing.”

Pasadena City Councilman Chris Holden, who represents a portion of Northwest Pasadena, echoed Mulhall’s argument and added that helicopters are an effective tool in fighting crime. “The department and the officials have indicated that it’s a very important resource to overall crime-fighting,” Holden said. “You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. If police are saying that this helps them be more effective, I don’t want to take an action that will tie their hands.”
The biggest issue for Costa is privacy. He feels that helicopters should only be used for emergency response, not patrolling and constant surveillance, and that the public should have a voice in what equipment the police use.
“Why are they allowed to use military helicopters from Vietnam on a civilian population?” he said. “They’re targeting entire neighborhoods, letting us know we’re being watched. They’re flexing muscle and spending money. I’m concerned with the class issues involved, because this doesn’t happen in wealthier neighborhoods.”
The United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of police helicopter surveillance in the 1989 case Florida v. Riley. The court, in a 5-4 decision, concluded that airborne inspections do not violate the Fourth and 14th amendments and that the expectation of privacy is not reasonable because “private and commercial flight in the public airways is routine.”
Marvin Rudnick, a Pasadena lawyer, explained that police need helicopters as backup for lawful activities, “but they also use them to peer into people’s houses and backyards” to find illegal activity, such as growing marijuana. “The Supreme Court upheld the right of police to search from helicopters without a warrant,” he said, adding, “To solve the problem, the city should order its helicopter pilots to limit police activities where it invades people’s homes and their privacy.”
Mulhall said the helicopter crews are trying to fly higher and that they stay out of residential neighborhoods at night. Dsouza and Gostelow say that claim is “absolutely false.” 

The exemption question

In July and August, the couple kept a log of how often helicopters flew over their house on Fay Place near Washington Boulevard and Los Robles Avenue, which occurred almost every day several times a day at all hours up to 2 a.m., and recorded decibel readings of each incident. According to Pasadena’s noise ordinance, it is unlawful for any noise to be made that exceeds the ambient noise level at the property line by more than five decibels. The ambient noise level at Dsouza’s and Gostelow’s property line was 50 dbA, while the overhead helicopters came in at an average of 65 to 75 dbA.
Bogaard said he believes police operations are not in violation of any ordinance.
“I haven’t heard that allegation myself,” he said. “I certainly have heard from people over the years that the noise is excessive and burdensome to them. And while the program is important, I think we’ll continue to respond to concerns and learn from the impact that the noise has on families and others in the area, which is important to this effort.”
Pasadena’s noise ordinance, however, does not mention helicopters as an exemption, or at all, for that matter.

“We don’t believe police have carte blanche when it comes to employing law enforcement techniques,” Dsouza said. “If you exempt police from the noise ordinance, you throw out the whole law.”
According to Mulhall, the helicopters respond faster if they are already in the air. The average response time is 45 to 50 seconds. In between calls, Mulhall said, “the crews look for crimes in progress, stolen cars, wanted suspects, that sort of thing. They have much better visibility and can therefore paint a picture for officers on the ground.”
Costa questioned the advantage of speed when helicopters are just patrolling. He thinks they’re not used for crime intervention but rather police surveillance.
“What good is speed,” he said, “if the officer can’t hop out of the helicopter and intervene in an ongoing crime? There are multiple reasons why this is not a good idea. It’s a constant reminder of the worst of us, not the best of us.”
After speaking with several employees from the city’s Environmental Health Services Division, Councilman Holden’s office and the Police Department’s Air Operations Division, Gostelow was told that the noise ordinance exempts police helicopters — which is not mentioned anywhere in the law. 
Ultimately, she and Dsouza were left with the notion that the helicopters are not going anywhere. They feel that the newer, quieter model will not be quiet enough for them.
“Those who are concerned need to give it a chance before they jump to a place of wanting to pull it out of operation,” Holden said. “I’m not sure that opinion will be shared by the whole city. They’re moving to a quieter helicopter. Let’s evaluate it at that point and let’s give it a chance to see how it’s going to work.”
Costa has created an email address for his demilitarization citizens group. Send your 
questions and concerns to