Drunk-driving accidents are down in this middle-class, residential city, along with slugfests in bars. Beer cans no longer litter the parks after weekends. And when a rowdy party crowd wants to have fun, it pretty much chooses some other town, according to local officials.
City officials say much of the credit for La Mirada's crime-fighting success goes to a three-car, six-officer unit of sheriff's deputies once referred to as the party-pooper patrol. The deputies' work has earned them a nomination for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Exemplary Service Award.
Since the patrol was set up five years ago, cases of aggravated assault in La Mirada have dropped 68%, from 463 in 1985 to 149 last year. Department statistics on accidents involving drunk drivers were not available that far back, but in the last three years, these mishaps have declined 21%, from 205 to 162.
In contrast, these types of incidents have increased in other area cities. Aggravated assaults in Whittier, for example, have increased 38% since 1986. Drunk-driving-related accidents have increased by 37% in Compton in the last year, according to police reports.
The La Mirada squad focused on two targets in its effort to decrease drunk driving and assaults, supervising Deputy David Kolinski said. First, his team shut down large, boisterous drinking parties that were becoming common in the mid-1980s. The deputies also cracked down on local bars known for tolerating fighting, drug use and excessive drinking.
"We were hired to solve a problem: alcohol abuse and the problems that go with it," Kolinski said.
When the patrol first took to the streets, there were sometimes four or five parties a night on weekends, officials said. Youths would gather from miles around to drink and socialize. "They would make out flyers and pass them around at school," Kolinski said.
As a result, "up and down the street there'd be beer bottles, beer cans. People would be driving on lawns, driving into parked cars. There'd be fights and people threatening the neighbors. It was not uncommon to get bottles thrown at you," he said.
The situation was embarrassing to local officials of a wholesome, middle-class town whose slogan is "the courtesy capital of the world."
The city authorized the patrols, and armed deputies with a variety of party-control ordinances. Deputies could fine hosts for the amount of time the officers remained at the scene after giving an order to disperse. Officers could impound band equipment, or cite people for charging admission to parties. Beer guzzlers in parks faced fines of more than $400.
The patrol also took on the local bar scene. Kolinski described one "singles-type of place where they swapped wives. There were sex acts on the dance floor" and drug sales outside. "The city doesn't want to have that kind of reputation."
With the help of city officials, the sheriff's vice squad and state Alcoholic Beverage Control officials, the patrol forced some bars out of business and tamed others. One former trouble spot, Sugar's Men's Club, installed $17,000 worth of surveillance equipment and promised to call the deputies when customers got out of hand, Kolinski said.
The deputies' work at parks, parties and bars left fewer drunks on the roads, and many out-of-town troublemakers stayed away, Kolinski said. Assaults in bars and parks declined from about 10 a month in 1985 to only two in 1990.
The special detail costs the city $85,000 a year above its regular contract with the Sheriff's Department. The patrol deputies drive unmarked cars--sometimes their own--and wear jeans and department-issue green jackets, Kolinski said. Deputies work the patrol on overtime, each logging one shift a week when needed.
While they are on party patrol, deputies do not have to respond to radio calls. They are free to cruise problem areas or conduct stakeouts. From the start, Kolinski said, he handpicked a crew of veteran deputies known for their people skills. To date, no one has lodged a formal complaint about a patrol deputy's actions, he said.
Even as the rowdy parties began to disappear, the city decided to keep the patrol active and instructed it to address other crime problems, including burglaries, illegal drag-racing and increased local gang activity.
Last summer, the patrol broke up two groups that used deserted industrial streets for late-night racing and drinking. The racers would set up their contests in advance, trucking in souped-up dragsters from all over Southern California.
"We're very ahead of the game," said Deputy Joe Lomonaco. "I think we have a handle on crime, I really do."
Last week, the city handed out its own commendations to deputies assigned there--an annual event. City Council members know many deputies by their first names. "It's very morale-building," Kolinski said. "I know we have the key to something good. All you have to do is compare. If you don't have happy employees, you're not going to get a lot of work out of them."
He said law enforcement agencies from as far away as San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and even Colorado had contacted him about how the patrol operates.
Meanwhile, Kolinski has a new assignment for the patrol: volleyball players at Neff Park. "We've gotten complaints on Sunday that volleyball players are not only playing volleyball, but drinking, getting loud, playing hockey on the tennis courts," he said.
"We've gone out there twice and warned them. Next time we go out we'll cite them or take people to jail."