The call for help crackled over the police radio at 5:13 p.m. John Cordischi, a burly officer with a shotgun at his side, stomped on the gas of his patrol car and sped toward the action.
But this was not one of the gang raids, or crack busts, or shoot-outs with Uzi-toting punks that have become daily routines for many Los Angeles-area police departments.
This was Sierra Madre--Los Angeles County’s safest city--and high atop Oak Crest Drive, Lani Ridley had locked herself out of the house.
Without missing a beat, Cordischi grabbed a ladder from Ridley’s garage, climbed through a second-story window and emerged, perspiring, a few seconds later to open the door.
“Ta-da,” sang the 10-year veteran, triumphantly slapping the dirt from his palms.
A Hug and a Peck
Ridley, a stylishly dressed woman in her early 40s, handed Cordischi a glass of ice water, then gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
“You’re my hero,” she said.
This, it turned out, was the start of an unusually busy night in the tiny San Gabriel Valley foothill town.
An FBI report released today shows Sierra Madre as having the second-lowest crime rate of any city in the state, trailing only the exclusive Bay Area suburb of Hillsborough.
In the report, an annual index called “Crime in the United States,” Sierra Madre is shown having survived 1988 with two murders, no rapes, five robberies, eight assaults and 55 burglaries.
The predominantly Anglo, middle-class community just east of Pasadena was followed in Los Angeles County by such other low-crime cities as Palos Verdes, San Marino, Agoura Hills and La Canada Flintridge.
By contrast, the city of Los Angeles endured 736 murders, 2,006 rapes, 26,182 robberies, 37,812 assaults and 50,988 burglaries in 1988, the FBI report said. In the first seven months of 1989, police in Sierra Madre have made only 88 arrests. In Los Angeles, that many people are put behind bars on the average of every 2 1/2 hours, according to police figures.
At night, women feel safe strolling alone under Sierra Madre’s starry skies. Joggers can be spotted on the wide streets as early as 3 a.m. And many of the city’s 11,250 residents, police uneasily concede, even leave their doors unlocked.
“The community is not a plum waiting to be picked,” cautioned Sierra Madre Police Chief Irvin E. Betts, who joined the squad in 1964 as a patrolman. “It’s not like this accidentally. It’s safe for a reason.”
The reasons include the city’s relative isolation at the base of the Angeles National Forest, a well-to-do, homogenous population and a department of 20 sworn officers, many of whom are known throughout town by their first names, police say.
Keeping Town Safe
A USC professor who has studied crime trends in Los Angeles neighborhoods since 1950 agreed that Sierra Madre’s inaccessibility, coupled with a mostly single-family population, has helped keep the town safe.
“It’s a very stable area, it’s insulated, it’s homogeneous and it doesn’t have good freeway access,” said criminologist Leo Schuerman. “It’s a bit more complex than that, but if you can’t get to a place quickly, crime tends not to follow.”
Most of all, police say, they are assisted by a grapevine of residents who do not hesitate to report anything that seems amiss in this 3-square-mile bedroom community that is home to two bars, one nightclub and one theater.
“I guess you could equate the atmosphere or mentality to that of a small town in the Midwest,” said Sgt. Larry Lutzow. “Everybody knows everybody. It’s almost to the point of people sitting around a potbelly stove in the old general store discussing the day’s events.”
In 1986, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, police fielded 4,523 calls from Sierra Madre residents--an extraordinary number for a town that has no gangs, a minuscule drug trade and only a four-bed jail.
Indeed, 88% of those calls were what police describe as service-oriented, the non-criminal incidents that most big-city departments do not have the luxury of responding to.
On a recent Friday, for instance, after his ladder-climbing feat, Cordischi was kept busy with reports of a stolen bicycle, a barking dog, a dead cat and another dog that had attempted to attack two puppies.
The most dramatic moment came about 7 p.m., when Cordischi flipped on his siren and pulled over a young man suspected of robbing a pizza delivery truck the night before.
It turned out to be the wrong person, however, and Cordischi soon got back to his weekly task of dropping off agenda packets at the homes of the five City Council members.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Lutzow said later that evening. “This has been a really busy night for us.”
Which is not to say that Sierra Madre is immune to the violence usually reserved for more urban areas.
Just last year, police arrested a man, now awaiting trial in Pasadena Superior Court, on suspicion of fatally shooting his parents in their hillside home.
Several years earlier, a sniper with a shotgun barricaded himself in an apartment building and fired round after round, until a sheriff’s SWAT team shot him dead.
And in 1985, a man who police believe was Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez attacked 16-year-old Whitney Bennett at her home on Arno Drive, severely beating her with a tire iron and apparently trying to strangle her.
“If you get some rookies who don’t know the score, they might do some teasing . . . calling us a security department or small-town police,” Cordischi said. “But all experienced cops know that if you’re out there, no matter where you are, you’re doing the job.”
Still, the job in Sierra Madre is far different from that in most other cities.
In the last 20 years, only one officer has had to fire his gun at a suspect. Rattlesnakes that slither down from the mountains are more common targets. After shooting them, police bring the snakes to a woman in town who makes the skins into hat bands.
The Police Department’s $1-million annual budget has never included funds for a motorcycle, so one officer simply went out and bought his own bike. He had to ask for permission to paint it black and white, and now rides it mostly in civic parades.
And as hard as it may be to believe, police say there are actually days in Sierra Madre when nothing--not even a barking dog--is reported. During one particularly peaceful stretch at the end of February, no arrests were made for 13 days.
“If we were here just looking for bad guys, we could all stay home,” Lutzow said. “What we do is very service-oriented. It’s a lot of P.R.”