Even if you've never been to sunny LA, you're seen the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in action countless times in movies and on TV shows. The department is almost 10,000 officers strong, patrolling 470 square miles and serving some 5 million people.
LA's ratio of police officers to patrol area is one of the smallest in the nation, so behind those 10,000 badges are almost 3,000 LAPD civilian employees. From security officers to storekeepers to jailers to phone operators, the civilian corps of the police department play a critical role in its success.
But just because they don't carry a gun or wear a badge doesn't mean the job is any easier. For the civilian employees in one particular division, though, life is actually pretty good. These are the civilian employees of the LAPD's Air Support Division (ASD), the largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation in the world, which patrols the skies of greater Los Angeles from its base on the top floor of a sprawling concrete complex called the Piper Tech Center. Positions here and in other civilian units across the country include clerks, mechanics, janitors, receptionists, technicians, typists, garage attendants, communication experts and statisticians.
LAPD helicopters offer vital assistance to patrol units, SWAT, counter-narcotics, rescue efforts and high-speed pursuits. They often get calls before ground units and can assess the situation from the air. According to a NASA study conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Space Technology Applications Office, the number of arrests associated with radio calls is three times higher when LAPD aircrews are involved.
Started in 1956 with a single helicopter, LA's Air Support Division now has 17 helicopters, 36 pilots, 23 tactical flight officers (TFOs) and one captain. On a recent evening, the atmosphere combined LA casual and the discipline of a military barracks: The "CBS Evening News" blared out of two large televisions, while in the roll-call room, pilots, TFOs and their civilian counterparts sat in what appeared to be '70s-era first-class airplane seats. Throughout the complex, officers and civilians share a special camaraderie.
Job Satisfaction High
"I love it here," says Joan Reyes, 46, a staff scheduler and office coordinator who has been with this Air Support Division for almost three years and a civilian employee of the LAPD for 11. "I absolutely love it. It's like a family. It's a very special place. I don't have those Sunday night blues, not wanting to work on Monday."
This mother and grandmother says she's seen the politics that employees endure in other areas of the force but adds that Air Support seems to be almost apolitical. "We [civilians] have all been talking about how we want to retire out of here. We don't want to move to another division."
Unlike other urban police departments in the US, the LAPD keeps two or three choppers in the air at all times rather than have them on the ground until a call comes in. That means something is always happening, and the team must consistently operate as a cohesive unit. Air Support Division officers and pilots, just like the civilian crew, love the department's spirit and atmosphere.
"It's definitely a job you wouldn't want to leave," says Lieutenant Richard Dyer. "I mean, once a guy gets here, they rarely leave the department. There are a lot of people who want to come here. It's an exciting place."
That's what drew civilian employee Vicky Castro, a management analyst, to the department in February 2005. She'd heard it was a great place to work, with or without a badge.
"I had spent four years as a management analyst in the Office of the Inspector General," says the 36-year old. Translation: She was caught up in politics and heard a lot of complaints during that time. But all that changed when she came to ASD.
"There are no complaints in Air Support," she says. "Really! It's a family. It's not stressful, and it's not political."
Both Reyes and Castro also like the stability. Civilians in the LAPD are in short supply, and the benefits are good.
"And remember, it's nice to work to make the world a safer place," says Castro. "Especially LA."