The Edge takes a ride-a-long with the Long Beach Police Department’s helicopter unit.
by Emily Rasmussen
Feb. 19, 2017
Climbing to 500 feet above the ground, Michael Colbert hovers over Long Beach in a dark blue aircraft. The propeller’s thud can be heard over the noise of the city, signaling that any mischief better hide, and quickly.
Colbert is a corporal and has been a helicopter pilot for 14 years at the Long Beach Police Department. His job is unique, serving as the eyes for patrol officers on the ground.
“I have a specific job and that is to manage the scene and make sure that everybody is safe,” Colbert said. “Whether that be our civilians, the police officers, or the suspects.”
Having the ability to fly from one side of town to another within three minutes gives a huge advantage to Colbert, compared to ground officers whom he said could take at least 35 minutes to cover the same distance.
From his aerial perspective, Colbert said that he can do the work of between 22 to 35 ground officers. It is easy to see why, after going up in the air with Colbert and his co-pilot.
Houses look like monopoly pieces, trees turn to little stems of broccoli, and people become ants. But if you know how to look and where to look, there is a lot to see at 500 feet.
During my aerial ride-a-long, within an hour Colbert assisted Long Beach patrol officers with information on suspects for several calls. The first call Colbert assisted on involved two people walking along Pacific Avenue.
After receiving the call, Colbert steered the aircraft towards the area within seconds. As the helicopter lowered toward the ground to get a better perspective, I could make out the color of their clothes and basic features. Colbert called in the information over the radio. Soon after, the patrol car pulled up and an officer started talking to them.
Having finished the duty of getting the information to the officer, Colbert flew away to give another surveillance sweep of the city. Since the helicopter is usually first to a crime scene, his job is to relay information to other officers or supervisors.
“How I manage a pursuit is to supply information. About weather, speeds, directions of travel, the pedestrians,” Colbert said. “That way the supervisor who is not on scene can get a visualization of what is going on.”
LBPD Lt. Kris Klein is in charge of the traffic section of field support. He oversees all motors, from collision investigations to aviation.
“Anytime [helicopters] would enhance the safety and security of the officers on the ground, people on the ground, they act as a force multiplier,” Klein said. “So a lot of times what they respond to is the more violent crimes and higher priority calls.”
A concern on the rise for the LBPD is recreational drone use, which in some instances have gotten close to some of the helicopters.
“The issue with drones is the pilot who is on the ground, controlling that drone, doesn’t have a stake in it,” Colbert said. “If it ends up running into my helicopter, I die, the other pilot doesn’t.”
If an emergency happens while in the air, Colbert said he has an estimated 18 seconds to act and try to land.
As far as drone use by the LBPD, Klein said that it is something that they have thought about, but would not expect anytime soon – primarily because of privacy and legal issues.
“Obviously drones would be a great tool because of safety reasons,” Klein said. “But a machine is never going to replace a human being. And in our line of work, that’s very important.”
***Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 17, 2016.