Police Arrive--and This Time They'll Stay

Times Staff Writer

The first time Los Angeles police tried to open an outpost station at the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts, a late-night firebombing delayed the start-up.

That was last April. Two more times, arsonists came calling as police scheduled and then had to reschedule the opening of the prototype security post designed to protect tenants in housing project.

But Thursday, the embattled outpost was finally christened at an open house at which officers handed out balloons and baseball cards to children, and city officials served up words of encouragement to residents "who want to take back the housing project from gangs and drug users."

Most of the residents at Thursday's opening said they welcome the stepped-up security although some were critical of past police methods.

"I'm all for police protection," said Bennie Ford, 50, a ship welder who lives on Grape Street, half a block from the substation. "It's pretty rowdy in here."

Ford said neighborhood police patrols are often absent when violence breaks out and, by the time officers arrive, the incident is usually over. He complained that police tend to make arrests on minor misdemeanor charges, such as loitering and trespassing, instead of going after serious criminals. He added that residents do not cooperate with police because they don't trust them.

"We bring a lot of trouble upon ourselves, but police put a lot of chaos out, too," he said.

Program organizers are aware of the communications problems, Deputy Chief William Rathburn said. He added that with the new outpost, police are trying to "buy into the community."

Twelve LAPD and Housing Authority officers will use the outpost to take reports, make phone calls, conduct community watch programs and youth athletic leagues, and take an occasional break from walking the housing project beat.

The program is the second phase of Operation Hammer, a police crackdown in areas of the city where gang activity is highest.

"We are trying to build a relationship with tenants here so they can participate in the process of protecting themselves," Rathburn said.

Outside of crime, the Police Department's biggest problem is residents' fear of grappling with the troubling gang presence.

"We have found an enormous amount of apathy in the community," Rathburn said. "They don't want to see the crime that is happening. Even the good people tend to be isolated. We can't help them unless they come out of their houses."

Rathburn said the residents who complained of not having a voice in structuring the program failed to attend City Council meetings at which the program was devised.

He said that in a neighborhood survey, 90% of residents told police they supported the stepped-up patrols.

"I'm not so sure it's going to go smoothly," Rathburn said. "I'm not overly optimistic. But we are trying to focus on the positive.

"This office is a symbol that we are residents here, and we are not going to be driven out."

Mary Frierson, 60, a 34-year resident of Imperial Courts, said police officers several months ago went door to door conducting a survey and seemed to be doing the best they could to build better rapport with neighbors.

"Just their presence will make a vast difference," she said.

She was not sure how hard-core gang members would respond to the 24-hour police watch with the opening of the outpost, but she thought that if the police sponsor sports leagues and educational programs, it will give children an alternative to gang violence.

"A lot of little gang members could leave what they are doing if they had a choice," she said.

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