Endless helicopter noise over Minneapolis has residents on edge

Police say the helicopters have helped curb carjackings, other violent crime

State Patrol helicopters have become a fixture in the south Minneapolis skyline since George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer in May. This one is pictured over the Powderhorn Park block where Molly Priesmeyer lives. Photo by Chad Davis/Minnesota Reformer.

Rachel Weeks and her husband live about a 10-minute walk from the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct police station that burned last summer during riots after George Floyd’s death, so they were familiar with the sound of helicopters whirring over their south Minneapolis home.

It would start in the late morning or some days early afternoon and continue until after dark.

But long after the riots ended, south Minneapolis residents say the helicopters continue to cast a noisy sonic shadow over their days and nights, and with disturbing frequency. 

Weeks still hears them during the week, and often on Saturdays, usually hovering in the afternoon for a few hours.

Her spouse suffers from anxiety, and the approaching helicopters now trigger shortness of breath and a racing heart.

“It feels Orwellian for those of us living in the areas under aerial surveillance,” Weeks says, referring to the British essayist and novelist of totalitarian terror.

People who monitor the helicopters on social media say sometimes they fly over all day, like in late January.

Minneapolis police are under pressure to stop a wave of violent crime, including 405 carjackings last year — a 300% increase over the prior year. They say the helicopter surveillance is working. 

Police said over the course of three days during the last week of January, people “may have heard” the sound of State Patrol helicopters during an operation conducted with city, county and state agencies to crack down on carjackings.

“We recognize the noise may have been unsettling,” police said on social media.

Molly Priesmeyer has lived in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of south Minneapolis for 20 years. She’s seen helicopters used to apprehend suspects before, but she says the helicopters have become a regular nuisance since Floyd’s death, particularly near George Floyd Square, where police largely steer clear as volunteers hold down an autonomous zone.

“This is a new tactic in that it seems like it is about patrolling and monitoring and not just specific apprehension, and so that’s scary and problematic,” she said.

Riley Bruce lives near 35th Street and Chicago Avenue — three blocks from where Floyd died under former Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee — and said the helicopters have been a constant presence, not just during the December and January crackdowns on carjackings, even though police have tried to “explain it away with that justification.”

Priesmeyer recently began seeking input from residents and trying to set up a meeting with city officials about the helicopters. She’s gotten responses from 150 residents, almost all of them upset. One person in the Howe neighborhood has an auditory processing disorder that makes her sensitive to sound. Her husband is a combat veteran who says the helicopters disrupt his mental health.

The residents have a lot of questions: About the technology the helicopters are using, what kind of video or images they’re capturing, what kind of retention rules govern the data they get and what they’re doing with the intel they collect. 

“Of course there should be public review,” Priesmeyer said. “There are lots of questions about the helicopters being a platform for surveillance.”

She wonders if they’re using helicopters to patrol the streets and wait for carjackings to happen and apprehend people. Helicopters have been used for decades — to end car chases, O.J. Simpson style — but this seems different to residents.

“This doesn’t seem like anything like that, this seems like they’re circling and circling and circling and monitoring and monitoring and monitoring,” Priesmeyer said. “They do the same thing when monitoring protests.”

“There are all these surveillance devices that the public doesn’t know much about,” she said.

Minneapolis Police spokesman John Elder’s only response to a request for information was to send a press release about 46 arrests made, 69 felonies charged, 15 firearms recovered and 12 stolen vehicles — six of which were occupied when seized — recovered with the help of the helicopters during the late January operation. The charges include carjackings, drugs, weapons violations, auto theft and fleeing police.

“Our objective is simple: to protect innocent people from becoming victims of extremely violent crime,” Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson said in a press release. “This joint operation, like the one before it, was targeted and laser focused at getting the most serious criminals off our streets.”

A similar detail in December brought 41 felony arrests, and police say it has reduced these crimes.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said in the release police would do helicopter details again if necessary, and after watching the data and listening to residents, “The need was there.”

“The Minneapolis Police Department, and our law enforcement partners, continue to be committed to addressing violent crime that has impacted parts of this city,” he said.

 

Priesmeyer said she’s not against crime prevention, but believes in police accountability and transparency. 

Residents still have lots of questions about the cost and effectiveness of the program; whether it’s worth the impact it’s having on law-abiding people below those whirling blades, Weeks said.

“The lack of transparency and public scrutiny is downright disturbing,” she said. “And I can only imagine the outcry if this were happening in a wealthy white neighborhood like Kenwood or Edina.”