Police Chief Paul M. Walters is one of the most popular figures at City Hall. At Monday night's City Council meeting, he was swamped by residents who wanted to shake hands with the man who launched the toughest crackdown yet on the homeless who sleep on Civic Center grounds.
But homeless advocates and civil libertarians accuse him of training an unnecessary force on an often defenseless target.
In a roundup last week and another Tuesday night, homeless people were corralled and cited on a range of misdemeanor charges, from jaywalking to littering, in what Walters viewed as a preemptive strike against more serious violations.
Santa Ana is already one of Orange County's most crime-plagued cities and the rate over the past 5 years has climbed steadily.
"The old way of fighting crime was to call 911 and get the police to the crime as quick as possible," Walters said in an interview Tuesday. "That doesn't work effectively any more. We have to change gears and think about developing strategies to fight the crime before it happens, and that's what I'm doing now."
Walters says dozens of residents, tired of seeing their city's reputation bruised by crime and other urban problems, have telephoned in recent days to express their support.
"We're 100% behind him," agreed Mayor Daniel H. Young.
Robert J. Cohen, Legal Aid Society executive director, however, considers the sweeps to be excessive.
"I've never seen such intensity against the homeless before," said Cohen, a lawyer in Santa Ana for the past 10 years. "It's frightening."
Despite threats that various groups will file civil rights lawsuits, the 45-year-old chief refuses to back down.
"What do they want me to do?" Walters asked. "My job is to take care of crime in the city, and that's what I'm doing.
"People don't go to Legal Aid to tell them about the crimes they see. They report the crimes to the police. We know what kinds of crimes happen out there in the Civic Center, and we plan to cut it out."
In his meticulously neat office at police headquarters, in the Civic Center, Walters looks more like an attorney in suit and tie than an aggressive police chief. One giveaway is the 38-caliber police revolver he keeps strapped to his waist. His office walls are devoted to photos of his family; he is married, with two sons. And his bookshelves are filled with studies on crime-fighting.
One text Walters has ordered all of his captains and lieutenants to read is "Problem-Oriented Policing" by University of Wisconsin law professor Herman Goldstein. Walters calls it the wave of the future for advocating, among other things, that police work closely with the community in attacking specific problems.
Walters put the theory into practice just last spring, when gang violence erupted in a series of weekend shootings that killed two people and seriously wounded two others, including an 8-year-old boy.
Walters moved swiftly to beef up the department's gang detail and began sending dozens of officers on weekend sweeps into several key gang neighborhoods.
The rash of shootings stopped, but Walters says it's too early to tell whether those actions will have any lasting impact.
"I think in the long haul, crime will be lowered," Walters said. "We can't solve all the problems. But we want to be as effective as possible."
Walters started as a patrol officer in Santa Ana 19 years ago and was one of the first members of the department's gang detail.
When City Manager David N. Reams gave Walters the job as chief after a nationwide search in December, 1988, he was relatively unknown outside the department.
In the year and a half since, Walters has preferred to stay out of the spotlight. His low-key style has been a stark contrast to that of his best-known predecessor, former Police Chief Raymond C. Davis, who grabbed headlines by refusing to help U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents conduct sweeps for illegal immigrants. (After Davis retired, Police Chief Clyde Cronkhite served for a year before Walters was appointed.)
Also in contrast to Davis, Walters has no hesitation in working with the INS, although the agency doesn't conduct neighborhood sweeps any more. During last week's roundup of the homeless, Santa Ana police alerted the INS in advance so agents could be prepared to process the 19 illegal immigrants who were subsequently arrested.
Walters says that each of 64 people arrested in the Civic Center sweep last week was caught breaking the law. He also said his department was not targeting the homeless, just criminals.
"The crimes are signs of disorder," Walters said. "If left unchecked, those signs can breed more serious crimes. We can't tolerate that."
But critics such as Cohen, of Legal Aid, say Walters' tough tactics against the homeless leave them puzzled.
"I'm really disappointed in him," Cohen said. "When he first came on board, I saw him as a sensitive man. Now I feel I really don't know him at all."
ANOTHER SWEEP: Police make a second Civic Center sweep of transients. B1
SANTA ANA CRIME STATISTICS
Santa Ana has long had one of Orange County's highest crime rates. Murders and assaults rose dramatically last year, while robberies reached a six-year high.
Category 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 Homicide 39 33 32 31 38 53 Rape 74 59 77 87 89 74 Assault with a deadly weapon 790 601 609 658 853 1,066 Robbery 835 865 1,005 799 1,041 1,125 Burglary 6,131 5,097 4,767 4,300 3,589 3,648 Auto theft 1,815 2,314 2,982 3,045 3,834 3,825
Source: Santa Ana police