You have a right to know what police helicopters are doing in your neighborhood. Finding out is relatively straightforward, since serious police incidents such as missing child or major highway accident will usually be in the news. You can also call the police directly. Law enforcement may not be able to tell you everything about the incident, but they can usually give you a good idea about what is going on.
It's Public Record
Police incident reports are generally public record, but the way a police department disseminates public information varies from state to state and even by department. Most information needs to be approved by a supervisor before it's released, and if the helicopter search was part of an ongoing investigation, police may not release the information immediately.
Call and Ask
Call and ask – but don't call 911 since that's strictly for emergencies. Most police departments have a nonemergency phone number posted on their website. An Internet quick search should get you the number. Once you're connected, ask to speak to the chief or the sergeant on duty. Identify yourself as a member of the public who has a question about an incident near your home. After regular hours and on weekends, most police departments will automatically transfer your call to a radio room or switchboard. You may have to leave a message and wait to be called back.
The Power of the Press
A good way to find out what the police are doing in your neighborhood is to call a newsroom. Every newspaper and television station has at least one staffer monitoring police scanners. If the cops have called in the choppers, it's likely an incident that reporters have been monitoring. If not, they'll be interested and will probably thank you for cluing them in to a big story. Find the phone number for the newsroom on the Internet or on the inside front page of the newspaper and ask for a police reporter or the city desk. If you don't get your question answered promptly, ask for an editor.
Laurie Schroeder has been a journalist since 1996, working primarily for Calkins Media as a court and crime writer for the "Bucks County Courier Times" and "Intelligencer." She holds an Associate of Arts in liberal arts from Bucks County (Pa.) Community College and is a fellow of the Knight Center of Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.