Community Asks Stronger Action Against Streetwalkers : 'It's like spraying cockroaches. They come back as soon as you let up.----Lisa Dunn, Panorama City-Sepulveda Chamber of Commerce

Times Staff Writer

"They're back," wailed Caroline Kovarik, whose family runs a flower shop on Sepulveda Boulevard in Sepulveda.

Kovarik and some other residents and business operators in the area expressed dismay last week at what they say is the return of groups of prostitutes to the boulevard.

"Pimps drop these girls off in droves in our parking lot," she complained. "They're driving us out of business. Customers won't come into the store when they see these people all around us."

The Kovariks and others are uniting in calls for stronger police action against the prostitutes, who they say have been returning to the street since special enforcement measures were allowed to die out last fall.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs met with about 30 angry residents in a local resident's living room in late January, listening to their complaints and promising to try to help.

Wachs told them of an infusion of at least $3.7 million in special overtime funds for the Los Angeles Police Department, offering hope for a renewal of anti-prostitution task forces.

Police Set Different Priorities

But police executives, short of personnel, say the level of prostitution on the boulevard has already been greatly reduced and they have more important things to do with the money--primarily improving response time to emergency calls and cracking down on drug dealers.

The residents and business groups are planning to organize a campaign to get stronger police action against prostitutes, hoping that in numbers there will be neighborhood strength.

"The business people have got to take a stand or this whole area is going right down the tubes," said Lisa Dunn, executive director of the Panorama City-Sepulveda Chamber of Commerce.

"Nobody will want to live or shop here if we can't put a stop to this."

The chamber is planning to hold a meeting for all interested neighborhood groups in about two weeks, probably at a local school, "to organize a fight against these people who are making our community a terrible place to be," Dunn said.

"When pressure was put on the police to be out there, it cleared up for a while . . . . The sweeps in the beginning of 1986 did some good for a while. But it's like spraying cockroaches. They come back as soon as you let up. We have to find some way to make the pressure continuous."

Complaints Voiced at Meeting

Also calling for more police pressure at the January meeting with Wachs and three vice officers were residents of the well-kept, middle-class Van Nuys neighborhood of single-family homes off Sepulveda Boulevard between Vanowen Street and Victory Boulevard.

The residents, members of a Neighborhood Watch group, complained that prostitutes and motorists establish contact on the boulevard and drive to their quiet neighborhood of dead-end streets to have sex in the cars, leaving condoms scattered about.

The prostitutes often appear during the daytime, residents said. "They have sex right in front of my 8-year-old," one woman complained.

The object of one of their complaints is a pedestrian tunnel beneath the San Diego Freeway, which they said prostitutes use as an improvised bordello. Above the tunnel's mouth is spray-painted the word "Hell." Wachs drew cheers by promising the group he would try to have the tunnel closed.

Wachs' deputy, David Mays, said last week that Wachs has asked the Board of Public Works to hold a hearing on the subject, "which we think the board could set up in 60 days." The board would decide on whether to ask California Department of Transportation to close the tunnel with steel mesh fences at both ends.

$82,000 Came From Office Budget

Some residents were disturbed last fall when the redistricting of the City Council took the area away from Councilman Ernani Bernardi and gave it to Councilman Wachs. Bernardi had provided $82,000 from his own office budget to pay for an undercover anti-prostitution task force. The task force was credited with making more than 300 arrests during the first 10 months of 1986, more than half by vice officers in the Van Nuys Division.

When Wachs took over, he did not continue the subsidy, saying he needed his discretionary funds to help him get to know his new constituents.

Moved to Provide Extra Funds

At the neighborhood meeting in Van Nuys, Wachs told the group that he and Bernardi had just that week sponsored a motion that provided an extra $3.7 million to the Police Department for overtime pay to finance special enforcement measures against local crime problems throughout the city. The money came from salary savings on unfilled police jobs, he said, and the chief administrative officer was asked to find $4.3 million more in similar savings elsewhere in the budget that could be used in the same way.

When the money reached the Police Department this month, Wachs pledged, "You will see very soon a real increase in task forces for street crimes."

But not, as it turned out, a return of the anti-prostitution task force on Sepulveda Boulevard.

Police headquarters decided how to divide the money among the geographical divisions, and local commanders had authority over how to spend it, under guidelines issued by headquarters.

"Most of the money in Van Nuys will go to visible street narcotics dealing," said Cmdr. Kenneth Hickman, head of the LAPD Valley Bureau.

"There are prostitutes on Sepulveda Boulevard, but there are 10 times as many dope dealers," he said, and a crackdown on dealers will repress more crime because "the people doing the stealing are stealing to get money to buy dope." He would not reveal the Van Nuys Division's share of the money.

Hickman said police do a twice-a-day survey of prostitutes on Sepulveda Boulevard. "I'm satisfied we have a handle on it," he said. "On a bad day, we count maybe six--some days, only two. We'll continue to put the pressure on, but I don't call that a crime wave."

May, speaking for Wachs, commented: "The Police Department feels the current level of prostitution activity at this particular time doesn't justify the expense involved in the use of a full task-force operation," but noted that the overtime pay for other task forces "will significantly increase the number of marked police cars and uniformed police officers on Sepulveda Boulevard and thus have a direct effect on curtailing prostitution even further."

May said the administrative vice unit that operates out of police headquarters downtown promised to use some of its share of the overtime funds to send some officers to Sepulveda Boulevard but indicated there probably would not be many of them.

Arrests Drop

Arrests for prostitution and related offenses on the boulevard were down to 30 in January, from 100 to 120 a month last year, said Sgt. Jeff Sheldon, head of the Van Nuys vice squad. With sufficient officers, he said, he could make 300 arrests a month.

However, he noted, much of the decrease occurred because the Van Nuys division no longer has responsibility for the area north of Roscoe Boulevard--where the Kovarik flower store is located, for example--which was transferred to the Devonshire Division in an internal Police Department realignment.

The vice squad relies mostly on two undercover officers to arrest prostitutes and two uniformed officers to keep up a police presence and make life difficult for pimps and prostitutes--following them, making them aware they are under observation and arresting or citing them for any other crimes or infractions they commit, Sheldon said.

'Got a Real Problem'

Complaints from residents of neighborhoods around the boulevard "are just endless," Sheldon said. "They call left and right. They've got a real problem out there, and I feel for them."

If he had the officers available, Sheldon said, he would run "trick task forces," placing plainclothes policewomen on the street to arrest men who solicit them.

"That seems to slow things down for three or four weeks because the tricks get worried," he said.

He said residents often do not understand that it is a better use of police time to concentrate on prostitutes on the boulevard, who can be arrested for soliciting, than on women committing sex acts in the residents' neighborhoods, who can be charged only with lewd conduct because of the lack of evidence that money is involved.

Bail for lewd conduct is $500, whereas bail for prostitution is five to 10 times as high, and judges "look at prostitution as a much more serious crime than lewd conduct," he said.

In his meeting with the citizens, Wachs warned them that they have a problem because "it is very difficult to change an area's reputation," citing as an example the years of expensive and time-consuming police efforts needed to discourage the "cruising night" ritual on Van Nuys Boulevard and street racing on Mulholland Drive.

Vice officers told the group that Sepulveda Boulevard has acquired a national reputation, that prostitutes arrested there sometimes are found to have come from other cities.

Sheldon said his officers have indeed arrested women from San Diego and elsewhere who came equipped with maps showing the location of the boulevard.

Most of the prostitutes, however, "are local girls who live right there in the area and pop out the door to pick up a few bucks," he said. "We once got one who said when she was arrested, 'Oh, gee, I've got a chicken frying on the stove.' "

It is common for the prostitutes to have records of 20 arrests or more, he said, and some have as many as 40.

"We didn't arrest one girl in January who we didn't know," Sheldon said.

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