In the three years since Sgt. Alex Gomez took control of the community relations section of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollenbeck station, he has transformed it into one of the most prolific police fund-raising units in the country.
From his cluttered cubicle in the Boyle Heights station house, he has staged rock concerts to benefit disadvantaged youths, organized holiday street fairs at which thousands of toys were distributed, and recently coordinated a week of outings for eight terminally ill youngsters.
In the words of businessman Rudy Garza, Gomez “helps make a difference while the city’s falling apart.”
Despite Gomez’s successes, the sergeant is being reassigned to patrol duties beginning Tuesday. He says his community relations unit has been told to get back to such “basics” as speaking to school children about crosswalks and attending service club luncheons.
Moreover, the Police Department has implemented a new policy that police spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said will curtail fund raising by officers throughout the city. Under the rules, any officer who wants to raise money--even by passing the hat for a crime victim--must seek permission from the brass downtown in Parker Center.
Booth said the decision to centralize fund raising was prompted by fears of “an unwieldy proliferation” of police-endorsed events, possibly leading the department to wear out its welcome with such generous entertainers as pop singer Michael Jackson, a supporter of DARE, the department’s anti-drug program for school children.
Booth insisted that Gomez’s reassignment is routine. “There was no question,” Booth said, “of his integrity or ability.”
Gomez, clearly disappointed with his reassignment, said he was told by his commander simply that “three years in a job is long enough.” Gomez thinks he may have stepped on too many toes.
Chief Daryl F. Gates’ staff, among others, complained about the choice of British singer Boy George--a former heroin addict--to headline a youth fund-raiser co-sponsored by the Hollenbeck station last June.
Concerns also were voiced to the department by Councilman Richard Alatorre, whose district includes the Hollenbeck division. Alatorre, refusing to elaborate, said he had passed along complaints from “community groups” that Gomez was “not accessible” to them.
“He’s a great community relations guy,” Alatorre said of Gomez. “But he’s bogged down in meritorious projects.”
Earlier this year, Gomez clashed with concert promoter Rodri Rodriguez, who was serving on the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission. She believed that a mariachi concert planned by the sergeant in East Los Angeles would undercut the profitability of two others in the works, including one she was staging.
Whatever the reasons for his reassignment, Gomez said, he believes the department’s renewed emphasis on traditional community relations work will hurt police efforts to show the mostly immigrant residents of the Hollenbeck area that the department cares about their needs.
“It’s a different neighborhood out here than in many parts of the city,” Gomez said, noting that many residents fear the police. “A lot of community relations is just shaking hands. But that isn’t enough here. What people need is a helping hand. And that’s what I think the police need to give if we’re going to build trust.”
The single telephone line into Gomez’s cramped and cluttered office rings constantly.
One recent caller told of how she had brought 11 children across the Mexican border illegally. She said they were living in a cellar and had no food or blankets.
“Sargento Gomez,” she said in Spanish, “everybody tells me to call you.”
He referred her to a law firm that he knew would help.
As a rookie in the 1970s, Gomez was briefly assigned to Hollenbeck’s community relations unit when such programs were being beefed up in response to civil unrest in minority communities. Back then, the unit had nine members.
When Gomez returned in late 1987 to head the unit after working more than a decade in other assignments, its staff had been reduced to three. During the intervening years, crime had risen and the city’s budget problems had grown, making community relations work a lesser priority.
With the approval of Hollenbeck commanders, he began to rebuild the unit. He recruited young Latino officers who shared his philosophy, eventually boosting his staff to six.
One of his officers developed a computer bank containing the names of hundreds of people, ranging from friends to businessmen to foundations that could be counted on to make emergency donations. In fact, the computer was donated.
Among Gomez’s first programs was an expansion of the station’s annual toy giveaway from a visit with Santa Claus to a block fair that draws 25,000 people and distributes thousands of toys in conjunction with the Hollenbeck Youth Center, a police-supported gym that provides activities for 4,000 youths a year.
The center, which receives most of the money raised by Gomez, produced a gold medal boxer in the 1984 Summer Olympics--Paul Gonzalez.
Gomez also set up a “mature driver” program to help seniors obtain insurance discounts and arranged for the donation of industrial-sized spray paint equipment to remove graffiti in the Hollenbeck area.
Last year, Gomez’s officers used vacation time to deliver $150,000 in donated hospital beds, incubators and other equipment to a hospital in Guadalajara, Mexico, that cares for cancer-stricken children.
Perhaps Gomez’s most ambitious undertaking was a 1989 concert headlined by Linda Ronstadt, produced with radio station KRTH-AM and the Hollenbeck Police-Business Council, made up of officers and local businessmen. The concert netted more than $100,000 for the youth center.
With the future of Hollenbeck fund raising unclear, Gomez said the Police-Business Council will take over the toy giveaway and possibly other events. Meanwhile, members of Gomez’s community relations team said they plan to press ahead on their own time to work with the hospital in Guadalajara.
One of Gomez’s officers, Maria Martinez, said she was disappointed with her boss’s new assignment. “I guess the only thing I can say is that Sgt. Gomez has the biggest heart in the whole world.”
Gomez, asked if there was anything he would have done differently, answered without hesitation: “No.”