Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Laura Crossey has lived near the University of New Mexico’s North Campus for about 30 years.
This past spring she began noticing an uptick in helicopter flights above her neighborhood, she said, but the resulting noise was louder and more sustained than the UNM Hospital helipad activity she knew well from her decades in the area.
Crossey, a scientist, is careful not to attribute the increased flying activity to any one party because she has not confirmed the agency manning the aircraft, which she hears mostly at night. But it had become such a distraction – waking her up from sleep – that she found herself researching helicopter regulations online and looking for phone applications to measure sound levels.
For the first time ever, she also reached out directly to the Albuquerque City Council, submitting an online comment to express concerns about the “extreme” noise and what she called a “war-zone like environment.”
“It’s very noticeable,” Crossey said in a Journal interview. “We have windows that sometimes vibrate.”
Crossey is not alone – several others have contacted city leaders about the helicopter activity, with many specifically citing the Albuquerque Police Department chopper. Their comments and complaints prompted Councilor Isaac Benton, who represents Downtown, Old Town and parts of the North Valley, to ask interim Police Chief Harold Medina during a public meeting last month for an analysis of recent flying activity compared with past activity.
In fact, APD’s aerial activity is soaring.
The department is flying its new Airbus H125 helicopter – acquired last December for $5.5 million – 10 times more than it did the old one, Deputy Chief Michael Smathers told the Journal, and the department says it has been an important crime-fighting tool.
“That (old) aircraft last year was at end of life, literally and figuratively,” Smathers told the Journal.
Smathers said the department flew the old helicopter only in the most “critical circumstances,” as it did not perform well in higher elevations and heat.
He said the new helicopter is made for this elevation, has better technology onboard and can fly for much longer periods. The police department still flies the old one, after replacing the engine, as well as its airplane – but the new helicopter is APD’s workhorse.
“The unit is at work and able to deploy almost 24 hours a day and are often in the air to be ready to respond to calls. If there is not a reason to be on the ground, they are in the air,” Smathers said. “For example, if an officer is in a foot chase, they need that helicopter right there in that moment.”
He said the helicopter doesn’t do speed enforcement but will patrol for suspicious activity on a regular basis, looking for stolen vehicles and commercial break-ins.
Sydney Counce has noticed the change. The North Valley resident complained the helicopter activity was “disrupting my day-to-day life,” according to written public comments the Albuquerque City Council office provided in response to a Journal request.
When the Journal contacted Counce on a recent weekday morning about her email, she immediately took note of a nearby chopper.
“Right now, there is an APD helicopter over our neighborhood,” she said.
Counce called it “pretty much a daily occurrence” to have an APD helicopter or airplane or Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office chopper overhead.
She said she has worked from home for years and did not start seeing and hearing such regular flights until this past spring. The activity, she said, has made it hard for her daughter to concentrate on her online school lessons and also sets off the neighborhood dogs.
“It feels really invasive; we can’t enjoy hanging out in our own yard. We can’t leave our house (due to the pandemic), but we can’t come outside because they’re just constantly overhead,” she said. “I feel less safe, not more safe with their presence. It feels threatening; it feels like we’re being terrorized in our own homes.”
According to records obtained by the Journal, Albuquerque police burned $5,486 in helicopter fuel between the months of May and August last year. This year, the department used up $55,672 worth of fuel – an increase of more than 914%.
Officials say the helicopter has been effective.
APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said since January 2020 the increased usage has resulted in 136 stolen vehicles being recovered and hundreds of arrests made in felony cases.
He said 227 of those arrests came as a direct result of the aircraft – such as locating or following a suspect – and an additional 181 arrests were made where the aircraft assisted officers but was not the “primary reason” for the arrest.
The stakes of those calls vary widely, according to APD records, from helping police find a homicide suspect to assisting on a call where a man was throwing rocks at cars. A large majority of the calls involve stolen vehicles and pursuit assistance.
But there are other reasons for increased usage as, in June, APD laid out a plan for additional air coverage due to “COVID and protests.”
Smathers said the department received most of the complaints after this period when they flew in highly-concentrated areas during protests.
“When we got some of those complaints, we self-assessed and realized that’s a legitimate issue,” he said. “We’re there for a good purpose – but we were having an unintended consequence on residents.”
Smathers said officers have changed their flight patterns during protests and try to communicate with protest organizers to mitigate traffic issues so they don’t have to use the helicopter to figure it out.
Benton said he is pleased APD has changed its strategy regarding protests, as many citizen helicopter complaints he fielded were about it hovering over public demonstrations. He added that Medina “agreed that wasn’t productive.”
The councilor said he is so far satisfied with the department’s response to community concerns about protest coverage and that he learned in a recent conversation with Smathers about the helicopter’s use in various arrests.
“I am (satisfied) for now,” Benton said last week. “We’ll see how it evolves.”
Back in the UNM vicinity, Crossey said the helicopter has generated much discussion on the online neighborhood network Next Door.
She posted about helicopter activity levels several weeks ago, sparking 140 comments from the campus region and surrounding areas.
Some said they appreciated the chopper activity because they see it as a public safety enhancement. Many others expressed frustration about the noise disruption.
“This (post) got 10 times the traffic of any other topic in my neighborhood area,” she said.