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The climate cost of L.A.'s police choppers
For their unnecessary joy rides over L.A., celebrities have been called “climate criminals.” What, then, should we call the L.A. police?
These days, everyone seems to be obsessed with celebrity jets and how much they contribute to climate change. But there is a far bigger, more powerful polluter in the Los Angeles skies: the cops.
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Nicholas Shapiro, an assistant professor of biology and society at UCLA, has been crunching the numbers on L.A. law enforcement’s helicopter flights to estimate the climate and environmental impact of what he called L.A.’s “helicopter dystopia.” Though the data is yet to be published in a scientific journal, Shapiro provided HEATED with a first look at the back-of-the-envelope results.
Shapiro’s preliminary calculations show that, from 2019 to 2020, L.A. law enforcement helicopters burned more than 1.2 million gallons of fuel, thereby releasing approximately 11,100 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
That’s more than double the emissions from number-one-emitter Thomas Siebel’s private jet last year; five times more than Elon Musk’s; and nearly 11 times more than Taylor Swift’s. Kylie Jenner would have to repeat her notorious 17-minute flight 8,795 times to match the yearly emissions of L.A. police helicopters. The average private-jet-less American would have to drive their car around the Earth’s circumference 873 times.
The annual emissions from L.A. police helicopters may not be huge in the grand scheme of the world, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University. The fact is, 11,100 metric tons of CO2 per year is “a surprisingly large number for a law enforcement helicopter fleet,” Dessler said—just like Kylie Jenner’s emissions are surprisingly large for an individual human.
Unlike the emissions of celebrities, however, the emissions of L.A. police helicopters are bankrolled by taxpayers. And they come at a high community cost. These aircraft are operated by one of the most powerful, and scandal-ridden police forces in the country—and evidence is mounting that the aviation units are doing more harm than good. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department’s Aero Bureau faces allegations of gang-like and racist behavior. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) accidentally killed a man when officers couldn’t hear each other over their helicopters.
For their unnecessary joy rides over Los Angeles, celebrities have been called “climate criminals.” What, then, should we call the Los Angeles police?
A massive, costly, and ineffective fleet
The LAPD helicopter fleet is the largest of any municipal law enforcement agency in the world. Combined with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which has the largest fleet of any sheriff’s department in the country, L.A. police have 34 helicopters and 4 small aircraft at their disposal.
The fleet is also incredibly controversial, due in part to its near-constant and often disruptive presence throughout the county, particularly in Black and brown neighborhoods. (Shapiro has also compiled data on this inequity; we’ll explore that further in next week’s newsletter). Two LAPD helicopters fly over the city 20 hours a day, 365 days a year, according to the department. The Sheriff’s Department also flies year-round, clocking 8,835 hours last year, according to Chief Jack Ewell, who oversees special operations.
With four to five helicopters flying at the same time, that averages out to over 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—and the total taxpayer cost is likely around $50 million a year. The LAPD declined to provide cost information to HEATED, but spent a reported $27 million in 2021, according to Capital & Main. The Sheriff’s Department told us that their helicopter fleet averages about $23 million a year.
The LAPD and Sheriff’s Department each argue their helicopter fleets are worth the monetary and planetary cost. “We need such a large fleet to save lives,” said Ewell, adding that the Sheriff’s Department’s 20 aircraft support search and rescue, medical evacuations, and natural disaster response over 4,700 square miles. The LAPD meanwhile argues that their fleet of 18 aircraft—used for surveillance operations like patrolling “high-crime areas” and responding to “large-scale civil unrest”—is necessary because it reduces crime rates, a claim they base on a 1970 study from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
That 1970 study, however, has been heavily criticized for design flaws. “JPL used some pretty bogus statistics to enable this entire program to exist,” Shapiro said. More recent and more comprehensive studies have also found that helicopters don’t reduce crime rates—but the LAPD does not acknowledge these. Its most recent budget proposal requests two new helicopters to replace older models to the tune of $15.6 million.
Because of these inconsistencies, and complaints from Angelenos, the L.A. city controller’s office is currently auditing the LAPD helicopter fleet’s effectiveness. “There are these accepted beliefs that we need a helicopter fleet because of how big Los Angeles is, or because of how bad its traffic is,” said Sergio Perez, who is leading the audit. “But those assumptions are not backed by readily available, transparent, objective, verified data.”
So if L.A. law enforcement helicopters don’t actually reduce crime, then are they really worth the annual climate impact of nearly a dozen Kylie Jenners?
“We are not looking for a cleaner aerial fleet. We just want them gone.”
The LAPD and Sheriff’s Department each say they are. The LAPD’s budget says its helicopter fleet has the potential to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because one helicopter can do the job of four police cars. Ewell similarly claims that helicopters help the Sheriff’s Department cut down the number of vehicles needed for a pursuit from 20 to four.
For Shapiro, their math doesn’t add up. “It requires a huge amount of energy to suspend a huge hunk of metal in the air versus moving it on wheels on the ground,” he said. Based on his calculations, the annual emissions of both aerial fleets equal the emissions of an average of 2,392 cars.
Even Ewell acknowledges that point. “Greenhouse gases are a legitimate concern for everyone,” he said. “And we've worked hard to be a good neighbor and to improve our carbon footprint.” That’s why, in the future, Ewell said the department plans to electrify their aerial fleet.
But for the L.A. residents who are disproportionately subject to law enforcement helicopter surveillance, the department’s stated concern for the environment is merely a smoke screen. “It's just another way that they're co-opting and weaponizing things that are good for our communities to expand policing,” said Matyos Kidane, a community organizer for Stop LAPD Spying. “We are not looking for more oversight, or a cleaner aerial fleet, or a kinder aerial fleet. We just want them gone.”
The fact is, the real cost of L.A.'s police helicopter fleet isn’t measured in dollars or metric tons, but in their impact on quality of life. Aerial police surveillance is a climate justice issue, and yet another example of an environmental health hazard disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities.
In our next story on this topic, we’ll explore the climate justice implications of L.A. law enforcement helicopters even further. We’ll get into Shapiro’s data tracking how police fly lower and more often over Black neighborhoods; the noise impact of helicopters on people’s health; and the Sheriff’s Department’s response to their pilots calling themselves “ghetto birds.”
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Catch of the Day: You can’t help but love Bird, named for WNBA legend Sue Bird. Reader Jessica says Bird does his part to help the environment by being a homebody and keeping the other birds safely outside.
Bird's other indoor activities include clawing everything in sight, stealing Jessica's food, and waking her up at 6am for cuddles. Unlike the LAPD, this bird can circle our house anytime!
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