California Forum

Do police helicopters deliver messages of safety – or fear?

Sacramento police officers are shown with the department’s new helicopter in February.
Sacramento police officers are shown with the department’s new helicopter in February. Sacramento Police Department

I moved to Sacramento from New York City in 2016, and I love it. After three years in New York, I became used to the sounds of a city – honking, people yelling, sirens blaring. What I am not used to are police helicopters regularly circling my neighborhood, delivering barely discernible orders from a loudspeaker.

One recent night, as I was preparing to leave my apartment to meet friends, I heard a police helicopter broadcasting a message. For the first five minutes, I couldn’t make out what was being said. I finally heard something about a search for a white male robbery suspect.

The part that really caught my attention was, “Stay inside your home, lock your windows, lock your doors. The K-9 unit is out. If the K-9 finds you, he will bite you.” I texted my friend who lives nearby to confirm that I was indeed hearing what I was hearing. It was as if we had become the suspects.

In a city still reeling from Stephon Clark’s death, which was also the result of a helicopter pursuit after a nonviolent incident, it seems misguided to continue so boldly with this tactic. The officers who shot Clark were afraid, but wasn’t that fear partially a product of the intense and dangerous situation their tactics created?

Besides, there are people – veterans of war, former police officers and community members – who suffer from PTSD that can be triggered by helicopters. I wonder if anyone involved in police helicopter policy in Sacramento is taking those factors into consideration.

I find the frequent use of police helicopters for nonviolent crimes in this city unnerving as we all try to decide whether or not we are in actual danger. When I ask longtime Sacramento residents, their response is always some version of, “Oh, yeah, they do that a lot around here,” as if it’s no big deal.

That doesn’t seem like the most productive way to instill a sense of peace or protection in a community. When people are in real danger – such as when a suspect who has committed a violent crime is on the loose and likely to strike again – that kind of action makes more sense.

I love Sacramento, which is why I’ve made my home here. I would feel more at home knowing that the officers in our communities are encouraged to seek peace first, and resort to more dramatic tactics later.

Helicopter policing creates a state of fear on both sides of the badge – which doesn’t serve the citizen or the officer well. When tensions are already high, why add to them with unnecessary helicopter policing?

Courtney McKinney is a Sacramento writer and communications professional. She can be contacted at courtneydesiree@gmail.com.

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