Police Establish Outpost, and Trust, in Oak View : Law enforcement: A six-officer substation has become a hub of information, referral services and crime prevention in Huntington Beach’s predominantly Latino neighborhood.
Since the city’s first police substation opened in the crime-ridden Oak View neighborhood a year ago, it has drawn praise, criticism and 13 rounds of gunfire.
But what it mostly attracts are people in need, such as the Latino woman who walked in last week with two children at her side and a quizzical look on her face. In one hand was a subpoena in English that she did not understand.
In less-than-fluent Spanish, Officer Robert Sutherland greeted the familiar face and tried to explain that her husband had to appear in court as a witness in an assault trial. She insisted that her spouse saw nothing.
The incident was one of scores, both trivial and urgent, that unfold daily in the cramped Oak View substation. Opened in September, the six-officer facility has become a bustling hub of information, referral services and crime prevention in this predominantly Latino neighborhood.
A steady stream of people drop by with crime tips or to ask questions about parking tickets, water heater problems and disputes with their landlords. Scores of children bound through the entrance, offering smiles, hugs and an occasional flower.
“A while ago a woman was killed in the park,” said Fran Andrade, a longtime community activist who campaigned for years to get more police service for Oak View. “Now if that would happen, they’d come here. It took a long time to build that trust level, but we have had setbacks.”
Some residents still are not very comfortable with the idea of having six police officers--all white--patrolling their tightknit Latino community 16 hours a day, six days a week. And there have been some obvious indications that the substation is less than welcome--particularly by the criminal element.
Months ago, the windshield of a patrol car was smashed and its emergency lights dismantled. Anti-police graffiti is prevalent. Porky Corby Station was recently scrawled on the side of the building, a reference to Sgt. Corby Bright, commander of the substation.
The worst came in January, when someone peppered the tiny substation with 13 bullets, which shattered windows, left three holes in an interior wall and three marble-size divots in its metal sign. Luckily, no one was in the portable building during the attack.
Police and residents say the attack might have been the work of resentful teen-age gang members, who have maintained an acrimonious relationship with their blue-uniformed new neighbors.
“We don’t honestly know who did it,” Officer Sutherland said recently, glancing up at the holes near the top of the office’s back wall. “Obviously, it was some folks who don’t like the fact that we’re here.”
The densely populated Oak View district is bounded by Beach Boulevard, Warner and Slater avenues and Nichols Street. For more than a decade it has been a notorious haven for drug trafficking and related crimes.
The problems became so bad that neighborhood activists led by Andrade repeatedly asked the city for foot patrols to police the area. In 1990, Police Chief Ronald E. Lowenberg persuaded a reluctant City Council, which was grappling with a tight budget, to spend $500,000 on the substation program.
Eventually, the facility was placed at 17261 Oak Lane, on a city-owned site sandwiched between Oak View Elementary School and the neighborhood community center.
The area had 4 1/2 times more police calls than any other district of the city, Lowenberg said, “so it was pretty clear to me that we had to do something to try to quell that trend.”
Change has been slow, though. Since the opening of the facility, frustrated officers said, crack and cocaine sales have remained brisk. It is the same for car and bicycle thefts, assaults and gang-related crimes.
A rape of a high school girl was reported in November shortly after two attempted rapes. Last weekend, two men were shot. One died and became the area’s first reported murder in several years.
In all, reported crimes have almost tripled since the substation opened, Sutherland said. But Lowenberg contends that statistics can skew reality and not represent an accurate picture of crime in the community.
According to Bright and his officers, a growing number of residents in recent months have been reporting crime and giving tips to help solve them--something he said they never would have done if the substation was not in their midst.
Despite the increase in reported crimes, area residents--from longtime locals to young parents to gang members--widely agree that Oak View has become a safer neighborhood since the police arrived.
Drug traffickers and prostitutes have been forced to be more discreet. Weapons are rarely seen on the streets. The community center is no longer a drug-infested bastion that residents fear to use; now citizens gather there for recreation and social events.
“Before, I could not allow my daughter to go to the center,” Yolanda Martinez said. “But now we can feel safe. There is no more trouble. We’re so lucky to have the police station here.”
A 24-year-old man, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said he and some of his neighbors were originally skeptical about the substation. But now, he says: “It’s good to have them in the community. Slowly but surely, things are being cleaned up. And we can really count on them, for just about any problem that comes up.”
Other Oak View residents are skeptical about the growing police presence, particularly teen-age boys and young men, who said that they as a group are singled out as criminals because of the actions of some of their peers.
“For them, this was like an invasion of their territory,” said Tony Sarinana, 69, a retired teacher who lives in Oak View. “It was like a gang coming in--a gang in blue coming in. And it was a gang that was too tough to fight.”
Eddie Lugo, 18, leader of the neighborhood’s Southside Huntington Beach gang, said that the police at first “tried to bully us to get respect . . . and we were acting tough too. Both sides were doing the wrong thing.”
In some cases, some residents said, they witnessed or were victimized by police harassment, including verbal and physical abuse--something the police have tried to deal with at community meetings.
Sutherland acknowledged that at least two people who resisted arrest had to be subdued by officers, including one victim suspected of vandalizing a police car.
That suspect was running away from officers when he was caught and roughed up, a witness said.
According to police, no formal complaints were filed over the incidents. Sutherland said he has fielded dozens of oral complaints, but he added that residents often did not know how to file a formal grievance.
“So we held a number of community meetings, telling people they have a right not to be beaten,” Sutherland said. “And we explained how to go about filing a complaint, and the process that you need to go through.”
But in the last two months, “we’ve gotten beyond that,” Andrade said. “Both the people and the officers have come toward the center since then.”
Police and other residents now say tensions have eased considerably among substation officers, younger residents and the neighborhood at large, despite occasional misunderstandings arising from the language barrier.
“There’s no doubt there’s a serious cultural difference,” Bright said.
Some residents attributed the substation’s successes to Sutherland, who they say has fostered a more personable, helpful attitude among the officers. Visitors to the substation frequently ask for him.
While walking his beat, Sutherland is constantly greeted with hellos, pleasantries and crime leads.
Andrade said she would like to see a Latino officer added to the Oak View patrol, “but if I had my druthers, I’d take more Bobs.”
Police and many residents, though, have pinned some of their hopes for continued improvements on the youngest generation.
“Each one of us knows that our future is in the little kids running around out there,” Sutherland said. “We’d like to change the adults and older teen-agers, but, for the most part, that’s like beating your head against the wall.
“Change will happen, eventually. I don’t look for it in the three to five years I have left before I retire, but it’ll happen.”