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Grass-Roots Effort Pays Off for Foothill Division Police : Law enforcement: Officers and residents join in fighting crime. A new plan will expand the program.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nicely kept house with the white picket fence had been a bane to its San Fernando Valley neighborhood for years, a source of suspected drug dealing that no amount of police patrolling or arrests seemed to stop. So Sgt. Pete Weinhold and Officer Pete Weinzierl tried a new tack.

Instead of focusing on the homeowners’ troublesome son, Weinhold said he and Weinzierl got residents to sign sworn complaints and explained to the couple that they could lose their home through a court order if they didn’t control their son.

As a result, the nightly nuisance has “just about ceased” and the house is up for sale, according to Weinhold, who cites the case as one of many successes by the Foothill Division’s community-based policing program.

Now, the Foothill Division has been chosen to be part of an experiment in law enforcement that is expected to echo, and reinforce, many of the efforts already begun in the patrol area made famous by the March 3 police beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.

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The City Council on Tuesday adopted a “community-based policing” plan aimed at promoting police-civilian teamwork against crime instead of traditional, response-driven methods. The pilot project is scheduled to begin in January in four patrol divisions. Three have yet to be chosen but Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has decided that one location will be Foothill, Cmdr. Larry Fetters said Thursday.

In choosing Foothill for the pilot project, city and police officials are preaching to the converted, as well as complying with a key recommendation of the Christopher Commission report that followed King’s beating. For six months, six officers have already been assigned full-time community relations duty in the rugged, ethnically diverse patrol area in the city’s northeastern corner.

So far, say residents and civic leaders, Foothill’s community-relations officers seem to have succeeded not only in restoring public confidence but in tackling problems such as the house with suspected drug dealing that defy conventional law enforcement.

“It has made a world of difference,” said the Rev. James V. Lyles, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Pacoima and past president of the San Fernando Valley Ministers Fellowship. “The fear has almost gone from 100% to zero.”

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Valley police officials say the City Council’s proposal should mesh easily with the existing one in Foothill, the Police Department’s second-largest patrol area, encompassing more than 60 square miles and about 258,000 residents.

The crux of the council’s proposal--that officers build “an evolving partnership” with civilians by collaborating on problems--is already in effect in the Foothill Division and throughout the Valley, said Deputy Chief Mark A. Kroeker, the Valley’s top police official.

Kroeker, who hopes to succeed Gates as police chief, started community-based policing in all five of the Valley’s patrol areas last summer in response to the King incident. He said his instructions from police headquarters are to continue with his plan but add elements from the council’s proposal, such as increasing the number of narcotics and traffic officers.

Thirty-one community relations officers in the Valley, including those in the Foothill Division, have already been meeting with residents, merchants and clergymen to respond to their concerns. A system of block captains and Neighborhood Watch groups is in place, and recently more than 300 citizens were sworn in as “community police representatives,” or liaisons between their neighborhoods and the police.

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Elements of the program, such as the Neighborhood Watch groups, have been operating for years throughout the city, Kroeker and other police officials have acknowledged. But Kroeker expanded such efforts in the Valley by assigning officers to work with the public full time. Previously, those officers only spent a few hours a month on that task.

Kroeker said the only differences he sees between his program and the council’s recommendations are the mandate for more manpower and a civilian advisory council charged with reporting to the Police Commission.

He said he has already begun working on both recommendations. An undetermined number of narcotics and traffic officers now serving the Valley will be assigned exclusively to Foothill, and the advisory council can be easily picked from existing “community police reps,” Kroeker said.

“It fits right in with where we are going,” Kroeker said of the program. “There’s no conflict.”

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Capt. Tim McBride, Foothill’s commander, said it is too early to measure any effect on the division’s crime rate or on the number of police misconduct complaints.

McBride also noted that if community-based policing succeeds in building trust, the Foothill Division may actually begin receiving more crime reports and see its crime rate rise. The area’s Latino population has increased nearly 80% in the last decade, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. McBride said some illegal immigrants have been reluctant to report crimes.

One Latina activist, Mission Hills resident Irene Tovar, said she is still reserving judgment about whether Foothill police are building a “true partnership” with residents. But she credited police with cultivating Latino contacts for the first time in her memory.

“As far as them reaching out, I cannot say they haven’t. I think they’ve been very good at doing that,” said Tovar, who was scheduled to meet with Latino merchants and a Spanish-speaking community relations officer, Minor Jimenez, Thursday morning to discuss robbery prevention.

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Jimenez and his colleagues have not only been meeting with citizens but cooperating with other government agencies to solve problems.

In the case where Weinhold and Weinzierl rallied neighbors to pressure the parents of the suspected drug dealer, Weinhold said the officers helped lay the groundwork for the city attorney’s office to consider filing a civil suit against the homeowners.

“This community-based policing works in a lot of ways,” said Weinhold, who has worked closely with the public on other assignments and was transferred into the Foothill Division after the King incident.

In Lake View Terrace, Officer Stephany Payne has worked with Councilman Ernani Bernardi’s staff and the city Recreation and Parks Department on pending legislation that would close Kagel Canyon Park after sunset.

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Youths drinking alcohol and playing loud music have been gathering in the park late at night, disturbing residents in about 20 nearby homes before driving away recklessly, said area activist Phyllis Hines.

Hines said Payne and city officials also persuaded the owners of a medical office building next to the park to install a gate to their parking lot, keeping people out after business hours.

“We don’t know yet whether we’ve got the young people out of there but I feel like we have a better chance than ever before,” said Hines, who had high praise for Payne, a black officer who speaks fluent Spanish.

“It was a really rewarding experience working directly with an officer,” said Hines, who is white.

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David Mays, Bernardi’s chief deputy, said, “We believe we have that situation under control because of this coordinated effort by the community, police officers and the City Council.

“It is a good example of community-based policing because those three working in partnership accomplished some very positive results,” Mays said.

In Pacoima, where merchants have been battling illegal street vendors for years, Payne has made an impression by persistently patrolling vendors’ favorite thoroughfares, explaining in Spanish that they are breaking the law, and issuing warnings before making arrests, said black civic leader Fred Taylor.

“They’ve made more progress in the last three or four months than we have in the last seven years,” Taylor said of Foothill’s community relations officers.

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Had it not been for the King incident, “We would not be getting the help we’ve been getting,” said Taylor, who heads a consortium of businesses, churches and homeowners called Focus 90.

“It’s unfortunate that Rodney King had to get the hell beaten out of him, but as we said early on, we knew some good things would come of this.”

Lyles said his African-American congregation has started monthly meetings with drug-prevention officers, a program he said he would have never tried before community-based policing eased mistrust.

“It is the best thing that has happened to us,” Lyles said, adding of the council’s plan: “This just reinforces a good thing that has already begun.”

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