The men gathered in front of the Canoga Park house stopped drinking beer and stared at the uniformed policeman as he walked casually down the street near them.
"Yeah, they know who's here," mumbled the officer as he smiled at the unsmiling group. "Ol' officer Watson is on the beat."
Officer Bob Watson is the new "Blue Knight" of Canoga Park.
While other police officers roam their communities in air-conditioned police cars, Watson is wearing out his "dogs," walking a beat in a community shared by low-income families, pawn shops, antique stores and topless bars.
A tall but friendly figure in his blue uniform, Watson thinks a more old-fashioned approach may help reduce crime and improve police relations with the public.
"I was asked for my ideas on how to stop crime in this area," Watson said. "I'm not much for new ideas, but I like to go with a proven product. A foot patrol can respond to crime quicker, and the residents and business people get a more secure feeling when they know a policeman is walking around.
"So here I am, big feet and all."
Officials think Watson's presence has reduced crime during the three weeks he has been walking the streets.
Authorities said there were more than five daytime residential burglaries in the neighborhood the week before he started. A week afterward, police reported that only one burglary was committed. Watson said he made four arrests during his first week.
The once-common foot beat has been largely discarded by police departments because of the expense involved and a foot patrolman's lack of mobility. Recent years, however, have seen a revival of foot patrols in cities including New York and Boston.
Watson's area, sometimes called a barrio because of the large number of low-income Latino families living there, is bordered by Topanga Canyon Boulevard, Wyandotte Street, Variel Avenue and Basset Street. A large street, Sherman Way, runs through the middle of it.
Police could provide no statistics on crime in the approximately three-square-mile area. But Capt. Diane Harber said the neighborhood has a lot of criminal activity, much of it narcotics-related.
"It's the type of area which would lend itself to the foot beat kind of policing," Harber said.
Watson said the area used to be dominated by heroin addicts, drug dealers and transients. But he said the neighborhood has changed in recent years into a "more respectable family community."
"The criminal element has moved out, and hard-working families interested in making an honest living have moved in," he said. "But there is still that sprinkling of hard-core criminals who continue to plague the area."
Business establishments along Sherman Way have been among the most prominent targets of the criminals, Watson said.
"Gang members will walk into antique shops, and they obviously don't intend to buy anything," he said. "One woman who was running one of these shops told me these youngsters just came in one day and just stood there, and she got so scared she just ran out the back door. The antique shop people are just terrorized."
Steel Bars on Windows
Most of the residents in the area have installed steel bars on their windows and doors as protection against burglars.
"These hard-working, blue-collar people don't have the money to spend on these bars, but that's what they have to do in order to survive," Watson said.
Since there was more reported crime there than elsewhere in the police force's West Valley Division, Watson, 35, a 15-year veteran, was given permission by his superior, Capt. Harber, to establish the foot beat.
For two hours a day Watson patrols the business and residential area, waving to store owners, talking to residents, roaming alleys and playing catch with schoolchildren for a minute or two.
As Watson patrolled Wednesday, the owner of a Sherman Way liquor store smiled broadly and waved when he saw the officer. Some residents regarded Watson with blank looks. Others grinned as they greeted him.
Watson pointed out landmarks as he walked along.
"There's a house where an elderly Spanish woman confined to a wheelchair sells drugs out her window," he said, pointing to a graffiti-decorated apartment house. Several drug dealers live in an apartment house across the street, he said.
"When I used to work in the Valley Narcotics Bureau, I must've kicked down that door about a half-dozen times," he recalled. "I know everyone who lives in there by their first names."
Although Watson sometimes walks the beat with another officer, he mostly walks alone.
"Yes, there have been officers who have been shot at in this area or who have had bottles thrown at their cars, and it's true I'm out here all by myself," Watson acknowledged. "But I actually feel safer on foot than in a car. If anything should ever happen, I can duck, dive or run, instead of trying to escape in an unmarked police car."
Could Go to End of Year
Watson said he will walk the beat five days a week for at least three months. If the results are positive, he said, he hopes to continue through the end of the year.
"I get a lot of satisfaction out of this, and I actually feel like I've done something when I get home from work," Watson said. "It's a little hard on the feet, but I think it will be worth it."
Joong Kim, the owner of the West End Liquor Store on Sherman Way, said Watson's presence has made him feel more secure.
"We needed something like this for a long, long time," said Kim, who has owned the corner store for 10 years. "We've had a lot of problems here, with people robbing and getting into fights."
Kim spends most of his working day sitting on the corner in front of his store with his back to the street, "so I can see who's coming in both directions and what's going on in the store. It's gotten that bad, and I'm really scared. I'm going to have bullet-proof glass put over the counter when I can afford it."
On Wednesday afternoon, when Kim saw Watson walking his beat, he smiled, waved and went back inside.