Reclaiming a Haven : Community Trying to Return Drug-Plagued Lanark Park to the People

Times Staff Writer

Terry Bennett of Canoga Park was surprised at the response she got when she called Los Angeles police to report flagrant drug dealing in Lanark Park near her home. The officer who answered said, "You and everybody else."

Lanark Park has long been a haven for drug pushers and their customers, authorities said. "In the West Valley, it is absolutely the worst area for open-air drug dealing," said Lt. Gary Rogness of the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Bureau of Narcotics.

Some residents said there is so much activity at the park involving motorists buying drugs from street dealers that traffic jams occur.

But neighbors and police said there is a strong movement afoot to return Lanark Park to the people. Though the drug-dealing problem is not likely to diminish overnight, authorities hope that stepped-up efforts by residents, city officials, police and federal prosecutors working together will hasten the process.

Undercover Operations

Complaints from area residents to city officials and police have resulted in increased undercover operations as well as a new foot patrol in Lanark Park. And police are beginning to use a new federal law that increases penalties for those convicted of selling drugs in or near public playgrounds and parks.

Earlier this month, four men arrested on suspicion of selling cocaine to undercover officers in Lanark Park became the first people in the country to be indicted under the provisions of the federal law, Rogness said.

If convicted, the men could face one to 40 years in prison without the possibility of parole or probation, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Susan Bryant-Deason, who is prosecuting the case.

Rogness said police decided to employ the new law after Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus, whose district includes Canoga Park, asked what measures beyond the usual weekend sweeps police could use to deter drug activity in the park.

Picus said that the park has long been a "hot spot" and that she hopes stepped-up enforcement and the new federal law "will be the incentive to turn Lanark Park around."

Foot Patrol Under Way

The new foot patrol in the park was started by Los Angeles Police Officer Bob Watson of the West Valley Division two months ago.

"The dope dealing used to be done in the apartments or in the alleyways," Watson said. "Now it's out in the open. It's more obvious."

Watson said apartment managers for the most part have cooperated with police by putting up "no trespassing" signs in front of their buildings to discourage loitering. Some have installed wrought-iron fences in the entryways of buildings and in the alleys between buildings.

Watson said he generally walks through the park one hour a day five days a week and averages two to three arrests a day, mostly for narcotics-related offenses. "It makes the bad guys more skittish," he said. "They know we're working it."

Police statistics show that there were 75 arrests for narcotics violations in and near the park in 1988. So far this year, 22 drug-related arrests have been made in the park area.

Jackie Tatum, assistant general manager of the city's Recreation and Parks Department, said the drug dealing has affected use of the 19-acre park's facilities, which include four baseball diamonds, a swimming pool, a playground area, four tennis courts, a basketball court and a recreation building.

"It has limited the number of people" who use the facilities, Tatum said. "From time to time, we get complaints from people who are hesitant about going to the park. It makes our job a little harder."

Extra Lighting Installed

Tatum said that parks officials have installed extra lighting at the park and that park rangers are on hand during weekend sports events to discourage criminal activity. Tatum said she is optimistic about the new enforcement measures that police are using.

But authorities concede that it may be awhile before residents begin to see benefits from those measures.

The problem runs so deep that narcotics peddlers sometimes openly display cockiness, residents said.

"They're out there yelling, and you can see them flashing what they have to offer. They have no fear," said Bennett, 33. "It's such an overwhelming problem."

Wayne McCormick, who lives with his family in an apartment next to Lanark Park, said his wife is afraid to go into the park alone and will not allow their 11-year-old daughter to play there.

McCormick, 42, said he has been approached by drug dealers numerous times while walking on the sidewalk and even while sitting in his car outside his complex.

McCormick said that just slowing down to look for a parking space in front of his apartment building is enough to arouse the attention of drug dealers.

'Dread Coming Home'

"It looks like you're a customer and people are up to your door to see if you want to buy something," he said. "I'd dread coming home from work at night and parking my car because I know they would be there."

Another resident, Kirk Koskella, said he has had enough and has decided to move his family from the neighborhood. "I don't want my children to have to dodge bullets," said Koskella, 30. "It's bad around here, and it's not going to change until these guys stop making $1,000 a day for selling drugs."

Authorities and residents have differing opinions on how Lanark Park became and continues to be a major drug center in the west San Fernando Valley area.

Sgt. Mario Mascolo of the Valley Narcotics Bureau said the park's problems may have started in the early 1970s when members of a reputed drug ring began selling heroin in the park.

"It started becoming a meeting place" after that, Mascolo said. "The word was out that you could go over and make a fast buck. Once it has a reputation, customers just cruise through."

Area resident Sergio Salgado said the maze of apartment complexes surrounding the park provides drug dealers with avenues to elude police. "There are so many apartment buildings to run in. The cops are not going to go chasing after these guys," said Salgado, 29.

Outsiders Blamed

Others, such as McCormick, believe that an influx of outsiders is largely to blame for drug selling in the park. "My feeling is that it's the easiest way to make a lot of money, especially if people come up here from Mexico and can't speak English," he said.

Watson said the majority of his arrests are of illegal aliens in their early 20s. "They are uneducated, with no jobs, no money and no fear of going to jail," Watson said. "They take risks because they have nothing to lose."

Still, Rogness said, police hope that the stiff penalties for dealing drugs in the park will send a strong message to pushers "that we want the park returned to the people."

"One to 40 years in prison. That's got to hit any clear-thinking individual right between the eyes," Rogness said.

Some residents, such as Bennett, are not so sure. Bennett said she will no longer allow her sons Ryan, 10, and Jason, 12, to play in the park and is considering moving from the area.

"I'm a little bit of a pessimist," Bennett said. "I'm glad the new law went into effect, but I wonder if these people read the paper. I can't see them being afraid."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°