It’s a doozy of a memory. It informs so much about my personal picture regarding Los Angeles crime. My city. My home. My view from above. And it haunts me to this very day.
Let’s forget for a moment the movie part of it, the studio I was working for at the time, or just why the hell I found myself buckled into an LAPD helicopter on anti-crime strafing runs over the vast, horizontally expansive landscape that I’ve come to call Luckyland. Why doesn’t it matter? Up there, soaring over Los Angeles, it’s all about who, what, where, and now. And the now of it cannot be stressed as any more of an understatement.
“Any unit. Woman reports a backyard prowler. Grape Street and a Hundred-Seventh…”
Occupying the two seats in front of me were the Air Support unit’s pilot — let’s call him Ron – and to his right, the designated observer – I’ll refer to him as Kim. When we’d picked up the call, the LAPD Bell JetRanger was pointed northwest on a heading for Hollywood. Below us the traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway was flowing freely, though a bit in slow motion considering our altitude of roughly five thousand feet.
Ron, I discovered, had remarkable autonomy over his aircraft. Unless the unit had been called to assist – or as their actual designation identifies – “air support” – ground units in the midst of a suspicious traffic stop, or a car chase, or an armed standoff — the helo team responds to calls in the order that they consider important. The radio call mentioned a prowler in a backyard. The address was in Watts. Small properties, even smaller backyards. If there was indeed someone trespassing, he was certain to be in very close proximity to the woman’s house. The prowler had already committed the crime of trespassing. It was a good bet the suspect intended on crossing more lines than just that of the humble property.
After executing a hard, roughly one hundred and eighty degree bank, Ron pointed the nose of the chopper at a downward angle of something that felt like thirty-five degrees. Suddenly, the vehicle felt less like an aircraft and more like a sled on greased ice. And our destination of five hundred feet felt closer to a log ride splashdown, but without the brakes. The airspeed was around one hundred fifty miles per hour.
As observer, it was one of Kim’s jobs to navigate “the acute” – ergo the streets below down to the half-address. Because this took place before the ubiquity of GPS on every mobile phone, Kim worked from a dog-eared Thomas Guide map of Los Angeles. The territories were marked off by LAPD divisions and LASD divisions. Kim had a unique talent for spying the streets and landmarks below while thumbing the booklet to confirm the reference.
“Ninety-eighth,” Kim called out over the internal headsets in each of our helmets, knocking off the streets in countdown. “Ninety-nine, hundred two, hundred five –“
Ron threw the chopper into another steep bank, hard left and flaring, the rotors thumping at the air above the neighborhood in a clear and present show. In what felt like a snap of a joystick, the helicopter began a tight, circular arc over the precise property that only minutes before had been phoned into the 911 network. Kim engaged the sunspot attached to the nose of the helo, expertly focusing the blast of light onto the house.
The backyard lit up. The prowler, who’d already begun his escape once he’d heard the rotors, was caught scaling a fence and was followed as he hauled across the street, bounced over more fences, eventually seeking refuge from the eye in the sky under a gathering of old live oak trees.
“Going to thermal,” shifted Kim, cutting off the spotlight but keenly able to keep his eyes on the suspect through a pair of infrared binoculars. A spare set of the specs was handed off to me. Along with Kim, I was able to make out the prowler’s every anxious move beneath those trees as he pondered his next move.
Ron kept the turns tight, circling the locale until a pair of black-and-whites moved in to corral the suspect. Once the prowler was face down and in handcuffs, Ron and Kim were off the leash and back into hunting mode.
Over the rest of that hot summer night, we stalked conga-lines of stolen cars, tracked a couple of car chases, turned day into night for radio units seeking to turn dark alleys into something safer and searchable. It was non-stop. Call to call. To say there was never a dull moment would be a gross understatement.
“How do you choose between what calls you answer and which ones you don’t?” I asked.
“Urgency,” said Ron. “Proximity.”
“Or lack of it,” added Kim. “If we can get to the scene first, you know? If this ship can make a difference in the call.”
“You mean in the outcome?” I clarified.
“Exactly,” finished Ron.
Knowing a little about the coordination of radio calls over various bands and considering the vast territory the air support teams covered, I asked this:
“But radio-wise,” I began again. “Do you flip channels to cover the division you’re flying over? Are you both listening to different channels? How?”
“We got a mix channel,” Ron said. “911 dispatch. Division dispatches. All in the same pipe.”
“Everything?” I confirmed.
“Wanna hear?” asked Kim.
“Sure,” I said.
After a few unexpected thumps of my heart, the speakers at my ears began to prattle with radio chatter. Call upon call. Left ear, right ear.
“Woman says she’s scared of her boyfriend.”
“Two-eleven in progress.”
“Man says he hears gunshots.”
“(muffled sounds) I’m in a fight! Officer in – I’m in a fight!”
“… reports of noises coming from the basement.”
“Fire crew needs assistance…”
I was gobsmacked. Slack-jawed. Mouth agape.
“This is…” I started.
“Everything,” answered Ron. “Least the PD. You’re listening to LA at night. Every night. Scary shit, huh?”
What I heard that moment I can’t easily describe. No commas. No hesitations. Nary a two second pause before the next call came across the radio. A ceaseless, unrelenting mash-up of emergencies emanating from the twinkling city that spread below us like a Christmas carpet. But what I felt… and remain feeling? I may still be processing. Through the helmet earphones I heard my city in a collective and constant cry for help.
Yeah. My city. I said that.
Sometimes at night, while my wife and children sleep, all of us safe behind the gates of our property, I’ll tune into an app on my phone. It allows me to surf a variety of local police and emergency frequency. In the dark, I’ll listen and remember the night when I was able to hear Los Angeles scream in all her naked glory.