The thundering sound of police helicopter blades is familiar to many Angelenos, and is often considered just a part of life in many Los Angeles communities. 

But in an audit released via Instagram live-stream, top officials with Los Angeles Controller Kenneth Mejia’s office said police officials were unable to justify the annual cost of nearly $50 million on its fleet of 17 helicopters — the largest in the country — as an aerial patrol fleet that often also gets used in ceremonial events, including a chili-fly-in at a golf tournament and as transportation for top LAPD officials

In the report released Monday morning, auditors from Mejia’s office called into question the money spent on the helicopter fleet. They said that 61% of the flights made by the fleet over four years, from 2018 until 2022, went mostly to the patrolling of some communities at disproportionate rates compared to the number of crimes that are reported in that area, while also releasing fuel emissions in those areas. The report noted that the fleet’s helicopters use 761,600 gallons of fuel annually.

Dinah Manning, the controller’s director of public safety, said that as an Angeleno who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, she heard helicopters’ throughout the day. It was part of life, and for a long time she thought it was justified. She said she was told by a parent, “They’re catching the bad guys, right? It’s okay, it’s fine, something’s going on, and the police are on it.”

But she said that in reading the report herself, she’d learned her assumptions were wrong.

“I invite everyone, everyone here, everyone who works in the public safety space here in Los Angeles, the 4 million residents of the city to look at the charts, look at the graphs, look at the text,” Manning said. “What are you getting for this investment? Now, unfortunately, this question hadn’t been asked before, and it’s being asked now, and now the onus is on us to start asking the questions and start doing the work.”

LA Public Press reached out to the Los Angeles Police Department for comment on the audit. LAPD Chief Michel Moore released a statement saying the police department “received the final report today and will review it closely.” 

“I believe the Air Support Division’s activities play a critical role in our public safety mission here in Los Angeles,” Moore’s statement said. “Their flights frequently result in their arrival at calls for service ahead of our patrols aiding responding officers with critical information and situational awareness. Air support also provides added patrols to detect and prevent crimes including residential burglaries while also responding to officer’s assistance calls involving violent and highly dangerous situations.”

Moore said they plan to review the controller office’s recommendations “as the Department continuously strives to identify improvements that can be made.”

A top official for Mejia said that as they asked questions about this fleet, they ran into roadblocks. At the Monday press conference, Sergio Perez, chief of accountability and oversight for Mejia, accused the police department of hampering and prolonging their audit into the police department’s fleet of helicopters.

Perez, who previously headed the watchdog agency that investigated police brutality by Orange County law enforcement, accused the LAPD of not acting in good faith and of being uncooperative, to the point that they included top officials, “non-subject-matter experts,” in meetings with audit staff. 

“We believe that those high-level officials were included in meetings with audit staff to chill the necessary conversations that we were intending to have with … helicopter staff at the LAPD,” he said.

The report pointed to the helicopters being used in nearly 800 ceremonial flights during the four-year span auditors looked at, including for retirement ceremonies, community events and public relations activities. Auditors found that the helicopters — part of what are known as the LAPD’s Air Support Division that was expanded in the 1970s when crime in Los Angeles was increasing drastically — were used to shuttle people in a six-hour-long “Chili Fly-In” event, and in another instance, to transport LAPD brass from Downtown Los Angeles to a meeting in the Harbor Community police station.

Crime has declined significantly since the expansion of the fleet in the last century, and Mejia’s report recommends aligning the LAPD helicopters according to current needs. 

Mejia’s auditors found that a majority of the fleet’s non-high-priority flights were for patrol, which were about 34%. Another 16% of the flights were for activities only described as “other.” A much smaller percentage, about 4%, were on medium priority incidents, which include reported crimes that are considered a “moderate risk to public safety,” such as Homeland Security surveillance, pedestrian stop, narcotics, prisoner pickup, suicide and traffic stop.

Meanwhile, about 39% of helicopter flights, less than a majority of the uses, were for “high-priority” incidents, such as “felony incidents involving personal injury or harm,” burglaries, robberies, and grand theft auto. 

Mejia officials said his office prioritized this audit because it was requested by many community members, and according to Perez the audit raised questions that LAPD officials have not had to answer before.

Perez said auditors found LAPD officials unable to defend their use of the helicopters and the money spent on them, especially in certain communities like South Los Angeles and Hollenbeck (east of Downtown LA), where the LAPD’s “helicopters are spending an outsize number of hours in those skies when compared to crime reported out of those neighborhoods.”

Their auditors wanted to know, “So how is that discretion being used? Is it being checked? Is it anchored in real community needs? Or is there bias at play?”

What they found was that LAPD officials could not answer those questions, because “the LAPD hasn’t done the necessary work to really understand how it’s using its helicopters,” according to Perez. 

The Controller Office’s audit found that the flight logs are poorly tracked, which the LAPD acknowledged in its response. They said their response was limited by that and said it was due to a lack of funding.

Auditors found that LAPD did not possess the flight data needed to better understand how they were using their helicopters, including a flight database, Perez said, which was the reason why “this audit took the better part of a year … much longer than we anticipated.”

Their auditors did “original work” and they went to a third-party vendor for the flight data, as well as held numerous meetings with LAPD staff, according to Perez.

“No one had asked these questions, and the information wasn’t there,” Perez said.

Activist Gina Viola, who has been to most of the Los Angeles Police Department Commission meetings in the last five years, reacted to the controller’s report on helicopters Monday saying that as an Angeleno she does not think that helicopters have to be part of a major city’s landscape.

Viola has called for diverting money away from the LAPD to use on other city services, and is part of a group that has surveyed Angelenos about how they want their budget allocated. The report comes as LA city officials and the mayor are developing a proposed budget for the upcoming year.

Viola says for the LAPD, helicopters are an expensive “toy they get to flex with.”

“LAPD gets to boast that they’ve got birds in the sky, it’s sensationalized,” she said. “It goes along with the Hollywood aspect of the LAPD.”

The Controller’s office made a set of 14 recommendations that included calling on the police department to update daily flight log data entry fields to include responses to Part I crimes, patrolling of so-called crime hot-spot areas (known as “directed patrol”), and the location an activity is happening, no matter what the purpose of the flight.

The office also recommended the LAPD create performance metrics and goals that are gathered, assessed and made public regularly for the public and policymakers to monitor. Those metrics should report on how LAPD helicopters lead to arrests, including whether the air crew was able to locate the people apprehended, and recover firearms.

Elizabeth has been on the local government beat since 2006, and likes making her friends take public transportation for her birthday.