By Will Kane
San Francisco Chronicle
OAKLAND, Calif. — A 911 hang-up at a pay phone in a downtown Oakland parking lot is already several hours old, but overwhelmed police officers still are too busy responding to more important calls to check it out. Any other time the call might languish for a few more hours, waiting for an officer with a spare moment to investigate.
But Argus, the Police Department's helicopter, is orbiting over the Fruitvale area when it gets the call. Pilot Sean McClure turns Argus toward the parking lot and, at 128 miles an hour, races to the scene.
McClure orbits the helicopter three times while Jon Vanerwegen, the flight officer, peers out the cockpit, looking for anything suspicious. He finds nothing.
Just one minute and 20 seconds after Argus was dispatched to the parking lot, Vanerwegen signals the all clear.
Had a patrol car been sent to the stale scene, police said, officers might have spent time driving to the parking lot and more time investigating, only to find that whoever called 911 and hung up hours earlier was long gone.
And that just isn't a good way to use limited police time, said Sean Whent, the city's police chief.
Oakland's Police Department is asking the City Council to set aside $397,000, starting July 1, to double the amount of time -- from eight to 16 hours a week -- Argus, named for the 100-eyed all-seeing giant in Greek mythology, can spend patrolling Oakland from 700 feet up. Oakland and San Jose are the only two cities in the Bay Area with a police helicopter.
Triage Low-priority Calls
On an average day in Oakland, there are 105 patrol officers spread over three shifts responding to 669 calls for service, including shootings, robberies, assaults and auto thefts. That leaves little time to investigate 911 hang-ups, drug dealing or murky suspicious circumstances.
The helicopter, which costs $450 an hour to fly, can be used to triage low-priority calls and leave patrol officers more time to respond to serious incidents or spend time getting to know residents, Whent said.
In one 50-minute flight last week, the helicopter crew cleared five calls that would have otherwise gone to patrol units.
Argus "can get anywhere in the city quickly, and if they can fly by and determine there is no merit to (a call), it frees up my officers," Whent said.
Whent and Mayor Jean Quan propose to spend $397,000 from assets seized by law enforcement in Oakland on the helicopter. The plan will go before the council's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.
"It is a great bang for the public safety buck," said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who sits on the committee. "It really enhances the ability of police, especially when we're understaffed, to respond."
If officers aren't "wasting their time, then they will have more time to be interacting with the community," Quan said.
But not everyone is convinced the city should spend more money on the helicopter, especially when so many residents expect police to be visible parts of the community, not anonymous enforcers orbiting overhead.
"If you're flying up in the air you're like an occupying force; that is like the Vietnam era way of controlling violence," said Wilson Riles, 67, who served on the City Council from 1979 to 1992 and has often been critical of the police helicopter.
"It doesn't make any sense. You cannot arrest anybody from a helicopter," Riles said. "The problem with the Oakland Police Department, the main one as far as I am concerned, is that they don't close any cases."
Money used to pay for the helicopter could instead be used for community programs, drug and gang education, language services, the crime lab or police training, Riles said.
Assists Officers On Ground
But using the helicopter to cut through low-level calls means there's more time to officers on the ground to investigate more serious crimes or develop relationships that could lead to more crimes being solved, Whent said.
"The helicopter allows the officers who are on the ground more time to engage in the community," Whent said. "If the helicopter handles 10 calls in an hour, that is 10 calls in an hour my patrol officers don't have to."
The helicopter, which carries a bright spotlight and infrared camera, can also help police find criminals who have fled on foot and are hiding out of view.
Ground officers might spend hours searching backyards, but the helicopter can usually spot the criminal in a few minutes and guide officers to the location, saving time and resources.
"If we hear about a burglary, and we fly over and we see someone crouched behind a bush in the backyard, we can tell the officers, 'Oh, he's around back behind the bush,' " Vanerwegen said.
Limited In Some Situations
But the helicopter does have its limitations.
Minutes after responding to the 911 hang-up downtown, Vanerwegen and McClure flew to West Oakland, where hours earlier someone had reported that a homeless man was sleeping on the porch of an abandoned house.
Argus orbited overhead while Vanerwegen examined the porch of a house with binoculars from 500 feet up.
A tarp was drawn across the front of the porch to create a shelter, but Vanerwegen could peer in and see that no one was sleeping there at that moment. He cleared the call.
As the helicopter started pulling away, McClure noted that the man was probably panhandling at the gas station across the street.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"He'll probably be back there sleeping tonight," Vanerwegen said.
Copyright 2014 the San Francisco Chronicle