Helicoppers: How Police Tactics Fuel Confrontation (News Analysis)

Gar Smith
Sunday December 07, 2014 - 11:24:00 PM

(Saturday, December 6, 2014) -- It has just turned 10 o'clock. The sound of helicopters continues to rattle the night sky over North Berkeley. It's been like this for hours. 

What began as a rally on the UC Berkeley campus has morphed into a roving protest against police murders of unarmed civilians. It seems to be open season on young men of color from coast-to-coast in the Land of the Free. 

According to a recent posting on The Daily Kos, "Every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement." 

The public response to such an outrage was predictable: marches in the streets. The police response also followed a long tradition: form a police-line that blocks the path of the public march and invites a confrontation. 

But there is a modern addition to the decades-old bully-boy tactics of urban policing. Helicopters. 

On one hand, a police helicopter circling overhead during daylight hours can be seen as providing a public service—i.e., identifying, at a safe distance, a section of the city where holiday shopping might be temporarily inconvenienced or rendered inaccessible. 

At night, however, the rumble of circling choppers becomes an endless annoyance. But when cop-choppers are scrambled into the nighttime sky, this produces something more than an irritant. Though the police community would be loath to admit it, the presence of these helicopters actually helps fuel public anger and escalates the potential for community protests. 

What Good to Police Choppers Do? 

There is little strategic advantage to be gained by filling the evening air with the noise of spinning rotors and the din of hydrocarbon-spewing engines. The advantage is mainly psychological. Police helicopters are iconic: They are akin to flying cudgels. Helicopter sorties are designed to remind the people on the ground that they are less significant than the powerful few who control the weapons of civil repression. Pistols, rifles, batons, tear gas and helicopters all magnify the message: "We are as gods; We are all-powerful; We look down on you; We control your fate at our whim." 

Police choppers mainly serve as a high-flying show-of-force but they are self-defeating. Why? Because the very presence of these aircraft is a provocation—a bullying challenge that promotes anxiety and anger from below. 

One of the two helicopters droning overhead is equipped with a searchlight powerful enough to illuminate the proceedings on the ground. The brilliant spotlight cuts through the night sky accusingly, like God's index finger, pointing to the scene of any potential riot. 

A band of protesters walking down a city street has no way of announcing its presence to the broader community. Police helicopters do that work for the protesters. It's like having a tax-supported flying billboard constantly assaulting the eardrums and directing attention to small isolated acts of protest that would otherwise remain largely invisible. The racket—which is impossible to ignore—inevitably draws the curious and the rebellious alike toward the officially "forbidden" activity. 

Flying Billboards of Provocation? 

Do police helicopters really act as a beacon, attracting mobs and feeding rebellion? Are they, in legal parlance, an "attractive nuisance"? 

I decided to put my theory to the test. 

I put on my walking shoes and set out in the direction of the circling choppers. I assumed a delegation of protesters might have descended on the North Berkeley BART station and blocked train traffic. When I arrived at the station, however, there were no shouting crowds. But there were no trains to board, either. 

Berkeley police had shut the station down. A police officer on the other side of a locked metal grate explained that there were no protesters inside; the station had been locked down as a preventative measure. In short, the police had shut down the station to prevent the protesters from shutting down the station. 

Turning my eyes to the sky, I could see a helicopter armed with a searchlight zeroing into a location that appeared to be in the vicinity of University Avenue. Walking toward University, I found Acton closed off by police. The intersection at Berkeley Way was filled with a dozen motorcycle officers straddling their parked Harleys. 

As I passed, I gazed at them with curiosity. They glared back with suspicion. 

Approaching University Avenue, I could see lines of helmeted police officers decked out in riot gear. A tall BPD officer spun around, faced me and demanded to know where I was going. I was told that I would be allowed to pass through the police line only if I was not going to linger in the area and he made it very clear that I had no right to wander about behind the police line. 

Impasse at University and Acton 

As I passed through the BPD's Black Picket Fence, I was surprised to see a number of officers who were really quite small physically. Although it was difficult to tell (given the uniformity of their bulky black outfits), I concluded the smaller officers – a few barely topping 5 feet -- must have been women. 

Once through the police line, I could see another line of Berkeley police blocking all four lanes of University from one curb to the next. They were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with facemasks down and truncheons at the ready. Scores of additional riot-equipped officers lined both sides of the street. 

A small number of local residents and students (some of whom had stopped on their bicycles to observe the proceedings and snap photos) looked on. There appeared to be more police on the scene than there were protesters. Nonetheless, a police officer picked up a loudspeaker, identified himself, and began to warn the crowd that "under the laws of the State of California" their presence constituted an "illegal assembly." 

Unfortunately, his comments were difficult to hear because the loudspeaker interrupted his remarks with shrieks of feedback. At other times it cut out all together. Even the words that did manage to make it out of the bullhorn were rendered inaudible every time a helicopter passed overhead. 

The officer's half-delivered warning did not explain why the small crowd's Constitutional First Amendment rights had been rescinded. (It may have been because protesters had earlier blocked traffic on University Avenue. However, at that moment it was not protesters but the police who had made it impossible for traffic to move in either direction on University. Moreover, a wall of three motorcycle officers had taken up a position at University and Sacramento to block any cars from entering the area.) 

After a period of time, the officer made a second attempt to address the crowd. This time he had a new, more powerful bullhorn. But, ance again he failed to get the message out. He repeated that the gathering had been deemed an "illegal assembly" and had reached the point where he was supposed to spell out the consequences for "failure to disburse." If people failed to leave peacefully, he announced, "You will be subject to arrest and other consequences of police response, which may include the use of less-than-lethal…." 

At this point, the bullhorn's battery apparently gave out. The sentence remained unfinished and, as far as I could tell, no further warnings were issued. 


I decided to leave the area. As I walked east toward the UC campus, I was passed by a half-dozen college-aged students who were laughing among themselves about the fact that the police gathered at the intersection apparently did not realize that "Everyone has already left the area!" and protesters were already headed to a new protest site. 

About 10 minutes later, this development apparently reached the "higher-ups" and the helicopters abruptly left the airspace over Ledgers Liquors and headed east to towards Telegraph Avenue. 

While it is a simple matter to redeploy a helicopter, it was clear that it would be a much more cumbersome chore to gather all the riot-helmeted and motorcycle-straddling police assembled in and around the University-Acton intersection and ship them across town to a new theater of operations. And, of course, if the protesters continued to be nimble (instead of confrontational), they could play this scenario endlessly, forcing the police to break camp time and time again. 

It is now nearly 11 o'clock and the monotonous drumming of the helicopters has finally left the skies. It looks like we will finally be allowed to get a good night's rest. 

Here's hoping that no tear gas canisters will be launched, no heads will be banged in by truncheons, no storefront glass will be shattered and everyone will be able to head home without breaking a sweat.