The mood was upbeat as Los Angeles Police Officer Louis Lozano gathered his troops in the dark on a recent Friday morning at Veterans Memorial Square in Highland Park.
At 4:30 a.m., Lozano, six traffic officers and three tow-truck drivers discussed strategy in the light of a street lamp before splitting into three teams to begin a sweep to remove battered and abandoned cars, which have become common eyesores in Highland Park and other areas of Northeast Los Angeles.
The pre-dawn sweep was part of the "Broken Windows Program," a Police Department campaign to discourage crime by removing abandoned cars, graffiti and other telltale signs of urban decay.
"We're looking for problems that are likely to lead to crime later on," said Broken Windows coordinator Mark Perez, a community relations officer with the Northeast police station. "If the neighborhood appears to lack the control to get rid of these simple problems, then the criminals will start to move in."
Perez works with six "senior lead officers," each of whom is responsible for covering one community in the Northeast Division. The officers dedicate one workday each week to the program.
Since the program was launched in the Northeast Division in August, the officers have begun graffiti-removal programs in Eagle Rock and other areas, and have worked with the city's Building and Safety Department to demolish or clean up dilapidated houses throughout Northeast Los Angeles, Perez said.
"The Police Department has been a big help to us because we're not aware of a lot of these buildings," said Al Garcia, a senior building and mechanical inspector with the city. "Vagrants go into them and create problems for the police in the evening and, during the day, they're unsightly and a nuisance."
Garcia said he receives about five complaints about abandoned or neglected buildings each month from the area encompassing Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Glassell Park. At the request of police, inspectors recently notified owners of three buildings in Highland Park that their properties were considered to have been abandoned. The owners replied by voluntarily demolishing the buildings, he said.
In another Broken Windows project, 30 police officers raided San Pascual Park in Highland Park last month after neighbors repeatedly complained about groups of up to 150 young men who made noise and drank late on Friday and Saturday nights, Perez said.
"We had a hell of a problem," said Bruce French, a resident of the neighborhood since 1925. On weekend nights, the youths would "make noise, drink and raise hell until 2 or 3 in the morning," he said.
Park Remains Quiet
Police responded by blocking streets around the park, impounding 21 vehicles and arresting 61 adults and 15 juveniles, Perez said. Most were charged with such misdemeanors as being in the park after-hours and possession of open liquor containers.
"I've never seen such an operation," said a 61-year-old woman whose home faces the park and who did not wish to be identified. "I really give the police credit. Even after the bust, they've been coming around more often."
Neighbors said that the youths have not returned since the raid and that the park is still quiet.
The sweep of abandoned vehicles in Highland Park required the cooperation of traffic officers from the city's Department of Transportation, which handles parking enforcement. Faye Matsuoka, an analyst for the department, said the department impounds about 200 cars in the Northeast Division each month.
A few days before the sweep, Lozano had made a list of about 60 cars that appeared to be abandoned. During normal working hours, traffic officers cited the cars under an ordinance requiring vehicles parked on city streets to be moved every 72 hours. The owners had three days to move the cars before they would be towed and impounded.
"I could have given you a list of about 250, but I didn't know we could handle that many," Lozano told traffic officers the night of the sweep.
The officers set up a "temporary impound lot" in the parking lot of a department store on Avenue 56 and York Boulevard. As they spoke, a large flatbed tow truck bounced into the lot carrying an impounded lime-green Honda Civic with a bashed front end.
'Huge Backlog of Complaints'
Traffic Officer Geri Stout did not seem to mind beginning her work day at 3:30 a.m., a few hours earlier than usual. "We're more than willing to work with the police on this," she said. "We've got a huge backlog of complaints."
Stout explained that it was necessary to begin the sweep at 4:30 a.m. because more tow trucks were available then. The traffic officers sought out the cars they had ticketed three days earlier and began filling out the forms necessary to impound them.
When their five-hour shift ended later that morning, Stout and the other traffic officers had scored about 25 "impounds" and noted that 35 other vehicles had been moved as a result of the tow-away warning.
Many Highland Park residents were unaware of the early-morning sweep.
"So that's why there's more parking today," said Josefina Iniguez of the 5200 block of Irvington Place, where three abandoned vehicles were towed.
"It's a good thing," she said in Spanish after admiring the empty parking spaces in front of her home. "It helps the community."
Encouraged by the success of the sweep, Lozano said he plans to target as many as 200 abandoned cars in Highland Park for removal in two to three weeks. At least 50 of them may be towed.
Perez said the sweeps may soon be expanded to other communities in the division.