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Bad Buzz for A Cause

By Teresa Rochester

The sound comes at night on the weekends.

The blades of newly-leased police helicopters ripping through air drowns out the television, conversation and any other competing sound.

"It makes you wonder 'My God, what's going on out there?'" said Councilman Paul Rosenstein. "It created some anxiety. Was it that they were chasing a criminal or responding to a call? I'd like to know more about the practical guidelines of when and why it's used."

The two helicopters, leased for the summer for $48,000 from U.S. Helicopters, have been employed to stymie gang crime and assist in patrols in the city on weekend nights, according to police and city officials.

"We've seen a noticeable increase in gang activity in the surrounding communities," police spokesman Lt. Gary Gallinot said. "We're taking a proactive step by renting the helicopters to increase public safety."

Gang-related crime in Los Angeles has jumped 70 percent this year and gang-related homicides are up 30 percent, Gallinot said. Neighboring Culver City also has experienced a jump in gang crime. The choppers only fly over Santa Monica, but Gallinot said they serve as a deterrent and can be on the scene of a crime in seconds.

The department also wants to head off a repeat of the bloody gang violence that wracked the city in October of 1998, leaving four people dead and five wounded.

In recent months the city has been hit with several violent incidents, including the stabbing of two men on the beach last Saturday and the Independence Day shootout between a hardcore Baldwin Park gang member and Santa Monica officers on the pier. Three police officers and three civilians were wounded in the shootout, which resulted in a tense five-hour hostage standoff.

Both incidents curred on weekends when the helicopter was deployed.

City spokeswoman Judy Rambeau said plans to rent the helicopters were in place before the July 4 siege. The helicopters began flying on July 1 and will fly over Santa Monica until Sept. 9.

"This is something that has been planned," said Rambeau. "They will monitor traffic for better traffic movement. The police department wanted to lease it as an extra added tool for them to keep crime down during the summer."

The choppers may help keep crime down, but their presence has been a rude awakening to residents, some of whom have complained to police that the helicopters flying overhead in the night suggest that the city is not safe.

The police department has set up a special hotline to handle inquires about the helicopters. The hotline has received about 15 calls since it went up, according to Sgt. Dave Thomas who oversees the program.

"It's an explanation of what we're trying to accomplish," Thomas said of the recording on the hotline. "We're also trying to change the perception. There's kind of a negative perception. We're hoping it becomes a valuable resource in helping to fight crime."

"It's just something they're not used to," said Gallinot about residents' response. "It's fairly new and we're experimenting. I don't think they're used to seeing helicopters out."

The city has been without helicopters since the 1960s. In the 1970s the city employed a plane. Currently the police department is experimenting with two types of helicopters to determine which is quieter.

"I think there are very legitimate needs for a helicopter," said Rosenstein. "You need to weigh that against the fact that the helicopter is very disturbing to people."

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