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How to be a Successful Criminal in Los Angeles

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Geoff Manaugh's new book shows how the city's geography both enables and helps prevent crime

Turns out there's a reason so many Michael Mann movies are set in Los Angeles—it's a city that offers fascinating opportunities for criminals and cops alike. Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh's new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City, details the ways in which structural elements and planning decisions in urban areas can unintentionally help or hinder criminal activity. In an interview with Los Angeles magazine, Manaugh goes through some of the unique features of LA that have attracted streetwise criminals over the years.

Subdivisions, it turns out, are pretty attractive to burglars. With such similar designs, an intruder can enter a house for the first time already having a pretty good sense of the floorplan. Without having to worry about quirky layouts, professional criminals can get in and out of a house much more quickly.

On the other side of the spectrum are neighborhoods like the Hollywood Hills, which are much more architecturally disparate and feature confusing webs of winding roads. Such geography can be disorienting for criminals, but Manaugh points out that it's also confusing for law enforcement. Lots of narrow roads and dead-ends can create problems for burglars and police equally, making familiarity with the area key.

One of LA's most obvious geographic features that figures prominently in criminal activity is its freeway system. Manaugh points out that during a wave of robberies in the '90s, bank robbers exploited the locations of on and off ramps with great success. "If you were a criminal," he says, "you would literally pull off the freeway, rob the bank, get back on the freeway, and the next thing you know, you’re in Burbank." According to LAPD officers Manaugh interviewed for a section of his book excerpted in the New York Times magazine last week, heists of this type were common enough to warrant a clever nickname: "stop-and-rob."

The officers Manaugh spent time with are part of the LAPD's Air Support Division; they're the ones who pilot the department's loud and seemingly omnipresent helicopters made famous by so many hip hop videos. Officers flying in these helicopters must be keenly aware of the city's geography in order to provide useful support to ground units hundreds of feet below. Impressively, the veteran Air Support officers Manaugh rode with on several flights were even able to identify specific addresses from the air through encyclopedic knowledge of the city's numerical grid and a bit of simple arithmetic.

Still, savvy criminals have figured out ways to elude even these watchful eyes in the sky. The simplest and most effective method? Venture out of the flightpath. The ability of the helicopters to navigate and retain visibility in areas with lots of tall buildings is limited, making Downtown a prime destination for getaway cars. Meanwhile, the number of planes landing at LAX makes it unsafe for helicopters to fly in the vicinity of the runways, so Westchester is another good place to make an escape.

According to Chief Tactical Flight Officer Cole Burdette, a few criminals have gotten really creative, covering themselves with mud to evade LAPD's heat-seeking cameras. And if you're wondering, yes, Burdette is aware this is exactly what Arnold Schwarzenegger does to hide from the Predator.

As Manaugh points out, helicopters have revolutionized the way police enforce crime in Los Angeles, and the process continues to evolve. Now the LAPD has adopted a more data-driven approach for its aerial unit, with the goal of predicting where and when crimes may occur in the future. It's a (pretty Orwellian) concept that has proved controversial, but may help law enforcement overcome some of the geographic obstacles Manaugh discusses. Of course, the city is changing too, and crime always seems to find a way to adapt to its environment.