What is a Ghetto Bird?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


No doubt submariner. Hey anon46952, you know the areas where you would be afraid to walk through after dark? Those are probably your imaginary ghettos.

Walk outside of your upper middle class world and see how it is for the majority. To me and most, the upper middle class as you so call it is only in our minds. I am a white female who works every day, and I have always been "behaviorally conformed," however, your way of living costs money.

Some are luckier than others, and life is a game of chance. I have worked since I was 16 and have gone to college. I am lucky in the sense that I have been given the opportunity to live in a decent home (middle upper by no means) but, would be in the ghetto otherwise. You need to wake up!


@Anon46952- I would have to strongly disagree with your assumption that the only ghetto that exists in this country are in people's minds. Believe it or not, there are slums in this country, identifiable according to the U.N standards. To think that this country is completely devoid of oppression, segregation, and racial tension that results in substandard living conditions for both socio-economic and ethnic minorities is naive and silly. There are decades of zoning laws and covenants in place that make it nearly impossible for those on the lower levels of the social hierarchy to progress and obtain the American dream like those in the upper-middle class.

The truth is that children from these 'Ghetto' neighborhoods have to do much more to reach a certain level of success than children from your neighborhood. I am not advocating intrinsic equality, but I do believe that society should become more equitable (there is a very important difference between equity and equality, but that is for another discussion).


Police helicopters have been widely used in Orange County, CA since the 1970s in the beach neighborhoods especially. It is victim thinking to characterize them as targeting "ghetto" neighborhoods. Wake up people -- the only ghettos we have in this country are in people's minds. Anyone who can pay their way can live anywhere. My upper middle class neighborhood is diverse ethnically but all are behaviorally conforming to high standards of living.

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