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Quiet Helicopter Creates Plenty of Buzz

By Jorge Casuso

April 14 -- The police helicopter that periodically flew over the Pico Neighborhood this weekend generated little noise in the air but plenty of buzz on the ground, as community leaders questioned the department's new tactic in combating a recent spate of gang violence.

The unusually quiet helicopter, which belongs to the Hawthorne Police Department, will periodically swing over the neighborhood on weekends as part of "Operation Prime Time," an increased police presence named in honor of two young men gunned down in 1998, said Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr.

Police hope the helicopter patrol will help prevent shootings like the one that wounded two boys last month in a cul de sac on the 1800 block of 21st Street or in other areas difficult to patrol on bike or in a car.

"We will use every method available to protect our community," Butts told The Lookout. "We feel that if we had the airship available during the shooting where police arrived on scene within seconds, the suspect would be in custody," Butts said, referring to last month's shooting, where the suspect arrived and fled on foot.

Butts said that the helicopter -- which will fly through when it's already on patrol in Hawthorne -- would cost the City nothing. "I have partnerships with many chiefs in the county," he said.

Community leaders -- who have long called for a greater police presence in their violence-troubled neighborhood -- said they are pleased with the extra effort and with the use of the quieter, turbine-powered helicopter. But they question the effectiveness of air patrol, which they called "window dressing" and a "dog and pony show."

"What we meant was more effective community policing and more deployment on the ground," said Peter Tigler, chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association. "In my wildest imagination, I didn't think they would use a helicopter."

"The whole problem is that putting someone in a helicopter is the opposite of getting to know who's living on a street and, more importantly, who's not living there," said Don Gray, the PNA's vice chair. "The goal is to prevent trouble before it happens, it's not to catch the bad guy."

Oscar de la Torre, who heads the Pico Youth and Family Center, was more critical.

"They're creating a police state in the poor part of town," de la Torre said. "You can't win a ground war in the air. It just makes it sound like something is being done. I don't think it's going to be as effective as they think."

De la Torre questioned the police's ability to quell the violence and noted that the suspects wanted in the homicides of the two young men honored by "Operation Prime Time" have not been caught, although the 1998 shootings occurred in the early afternoon on a busy thoroughfare during a gang war that saw massive police deployment.

"The police has never been able to stop the violence in the community," de la Torre said. "One thing is preventing homicides. They other thing is not even knowing who committed them."

Police note that violence has decreased after the department launched the Pico Neighborhood Task Force a month ago and beefed up police presence in an area that had seen four shooting incidents in the previous month-and-a-half.

Since more officers were deployed in patrol cars and on bicycles, there have been two shooting incidents. One involved the two boys shot on the street outside their home on March 19, the other occurred on March 16, when two gang members engaged in a shootout, then evaded police in Venice after leading them on a high-speed chase.

Councilman Robert Holbrook defended the department's use of the helicopter, which uses infrared censors to detect activity by picking up the heat generated by engines and people.

"I think it's a good idea," Holbrook said. "They can see cars coming and going. They can nail the perpetrator."

Holbrook said the increased presence is a response to a cry for help from residents who have been living with the violence.

"I've been getting emails saying, 'Please can you help us,'" Holbrook said.

Teresa Rochester contributed to this report.

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