Heat's On in Drug Arena : Police Put Pressure on Pasadena's Villa Parke

Times Staff Writer

It was a slow day for Agent Jim Riley and Officer Ruben Chavira. The two plainclothes policemen strolled through Pasadena's Villa Parke--the same park in which narcotics officers had made 14 arrests in 1 1/2 hours last month--but the only things busted this day were some old plastic baggies used for marijuana that they found littered on the ground.

"This is a good sign," Riley said. "Things could be clearing up."

Riley and Chavira, along with other Pasadena drug enforcement officers, have been focusing their attention on Villa Parke and the surrounding neighborhood since May, in what police describe as a major crackdown on the sale of marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

According to Sgt. Ray Bolton of the department's Special Narcotics Task Force, police get more drug-related calls from Villa Parke than from all other parks in Pasadena combined.

"Villa Parke is currently the focus of police attention," he said. "It's been an ongoing problem for many years, but nothing to the degree that it has been recently."

Bolton said that drug sales at the one-square-block neighborhood park occur day and night and involve both juveniles and adults. Many of the sales are made near the soccer field at the north end of the park, inside the graffiti-covered restrooms or behind the recreation center, where children attend day camp during the summer.

Problems at the park, which is located at Los Robles Avenue and Villa Street in a predominantly minority neighborhood, became so severe that area residents two weeks ago called a community meeting demanding more drug enforcement from Pasadena police.

Many of the residents were concerned about the several thousand children and teen-agers who use the recreational facilities each week or participate in the park's athletic and cultural programs.

Nick Lopez, president of the Villa Parke Youth Soccer League, said that he had to cancel a recent soccer match after players were approached by drug dealers during the game.

"Two years ago, Villa Parke was fine," said Lopez, who is also president of the Board of Directors of El Centro de Accion Social, a Latino community organization. "Now it's like a market in there."

One woman said that she was offered cocaine on her way to an 8 a.m. aerobics class at the park's recreation center.

Other residents have complained about finding discarded syringes where their children play.

"We want the law enforced," Lopez said. "We want the police to clean out the park and send those people some other place."

However, as both police and community leaders admit, increased drug enforcement is only a temporary solution to the problems that have plagued Villa Parke.

"The police solution is only a Band-Aid," said Sgt. Jorge Garcia of the Police Community Relations unit.

Garcia said that increased police pressure will only push the drug problem into another neighborhood. Recent arrests at several other northwest Pasadena locations may actually have shifted the current drug activity to Villa Parke, he said.

"Crime is like a half-full balloon," Garcia said. "You squeeze one end and the pressure goes to another area. Now Villa Parke has to be squeezed."

In fact, narcotics officers say that drug activity may alternate among at least nine different locations throughout northwest Pasadena, depending on the focus of police attention.

Residents near one of those trouble spots, a 26-unit apartment building at 700 E. Mountain St., complained to police last week that they wanted more drug enforcement in their area, too.

"We don't want a cosmetic answer, we want it squeaky clean," said George Corneal, who lives across the street from the apartment building. "Then it will be some other neighborhood's problem, I guess. But that's the way we feel."

According to Garcia, each neighborhood must take the responsibility to help police in eliminating drug activity.

"This is a democracy, not a totalitarian state," he said. "If this were Russia or China, we could easily go in and demolish the problem. But we don't want a police state here.

"If we're going to handle this in a democratic manner, we need the community to band together."

Garcia suggested that residents in the Villa Parke area form a Neighborhood Watch, attempt to identify people involved in drug activity and, most important, call the police whenever they see anything suspicious.

"When people ask me why there aren't some of the same problems in other neighborhoods, I tell them it's because other people don't allow it to happen," Garcia said. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

However, while residents say they welcome even a temporary solution, many community leaders have argued that the Villa Parke neighborhood has been consistently neglected by city and law enforcement officials.

Serafin Espinoza, a counselor at the Villa Parke Community Center, said that maintenance at the park is inadequate and the facilities are deteriorating. It took several years just to get lighting installed and restrooms constructed, he said.

"If they have the resources to put on a big Rose Bowl parade, then they should be able to assist a low-income community like this," Espinoza said.

Although the Villa Parke area may appear neglected, city director Loretta Thompson-Glickman said that Pasadena officials have tried for many years to rehabilitate the neighborhood.

Thompson-Glickman said that the city is prepared to invest about $800,000 in the redevelopment of the mostly vacant block directly west of Villa Parke, but owners of the property have not been cooperative.

The city is considering condemnation of the property so it can begin construction of moderate- and low-income housing units there, she said.

"The drug problem is a symptom of the feeling that this is all there is and it's not going to get any better," Thompson-Glickman said. "Once people see real brick and mortar going up, that restores a sense of pride for people in their area."

Similarly, community leaders contend that drug activity is really just a symptom of more fundamental problems within the low-income neighborhood.

"This just happened to be a drug problem that parents were worrying about," said Antonia Darder, executive director of El Centro. "Another time it could be something else."

Darder said that drug activity will not go away until problems of housing, education and income distribution can be solved.

"Our primary focus is to get people to lose their fear of institutions," she said. "We have to give people a sense that they truly have control over their own lives."

Darder admitted, however, that while the community must continue to struggle with these larger problems, temporary solutions are still necessary.

"When you're living right there, you're going to say, 'Hell, yes, give me a Band-Aid,' " she said. "It's hard to look at the bigger picture without some relief from the symptoms that are right there nagging at you."

Meanwhile, narcotics officers--like Riley and Chavira--will continue to patrol Villa Parke until the drug activity at least temporarily slows down.

"The first of the month will tell how well the problem went away," Chavira said. "That's when people get paid."

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