The slang term “ghetto bird” is used describe police aircraft which patrol low income and minority neighborhoods in urban regions. Ghetto birds may be used in active policing to track suspects and assist officers on the ground, or they may be used as a form of deterrent, to remind citizens on the ground that they are being watched. Some people object to the extensive use of the ghetto bird in urban environments, arguing that they are used to target racial, ethnic, and political minorities, rather than being a legitimate law enforcement device.
A ghetto is any region where minorities are forced to live due to economic, legal, and social pressure. Predominantly black neighborhoods in the United States are often used as an example of a ghetto, with a population which feels pressured to live in the neighborhood by anything from restrictive covenants to the disapproval of residents in wealthier areas. Ghettos are often characterized by very limited upward mobility, poor living conditions, increased crime rates, and limited access to education, health care, fresh food, social services, and other things which may be widely available in other neighborhoods.
This slang term is a play on words, referencing slang which refers to helicopters as birds, and the idea that the only bird which can thrive in the ghetto is an artificial one. Helicopters are ideally suited to urban policing because they are very easy to maneuver, and they can be utilized in a variety of ways. A ghetto bird may casually sweep back and forth looking for signs of trouble, or it may track suspects, often with the use of spotlights. Ghetto birds can also hover very low, which can cause noise pollution.
For residents of neighborhoods which are widely considered to be ghettos, ghetto birds are sometimes viewed as oppressive and obnoxious. The noise pollution caused by low-flying aircraft is especially irritating, with citizens arguing that noise pollution of the level produced by a ghetto bird would not be considered acceptable in wealthier neighborhoods. The routine use of a ghetto bird for patrolling may also be perceived as racial or economic profiling, with the helicopter flying under the assumption that the neighborhood is crime-riddled because of the minority population, and therefore in need of intensive police patrols.
For police, helicopters can be very useful law enforcement tools. Officers on the ground value the use of a police helicopter for backup, as the helicopter can quickly track suspects and provide assessments of the surrounding area. In routine patrolling, a helicopter can patrol a much wider area than a police officer on the ground, increasing police coverage of neighborhoods where the crime rate is higher. However, the use of helicopters can sometimes undermine community policing initiatives by rankling the residents.