The police responded immediately to a 911 call after an irate man came after Alex Pena and his work crew with a shotgun.
The man left before police arrived, but when Pena later called a Los Angeles police station to file a report and seek future protection, he got a volunteer police aide whose switchboard was lighting up with other calls. "Considering the state this place is in," she told him, "that would be impossible. If he comes back, run like hell, and call 911."
Pena, 25, was finally able to file a police report when he visited the Wilshire Station in person. He was unable, however, to get an investigation started because, he says, he was told that officers were just too swamped. Call back in a week or two, they said.
So it goes these days in Los Angeles, where much of the business of law enforcement has been virtually put on hold in the wake of the worst urban rioting in this century.
For the 11th straight day, exhausted police remain in an official mobilization--a department-wide state of high readiness in which every available officer and administrator is put on the streets. The department has not had such a mobilization since the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. Instead of adhering to its motto of "Serve and Protect," the LAPD is just trying to get by.
For Esperanza Reyes in South Los Angeles, that has meant waiting at least a week to get her stolen Mercury Marquis back, even though it's been recovered. Denise Banks-Fears of West Los Angeles couldn't get her vandalized car fingerprinted, because, she said, the police told her "they didn't have the manpower."
And Officer Soni Mount had to tell a Century City merchant whose business was vandalized Thursday that a police report she needed for her insurance company just wasn't possible. "Wait until this calms down," Mount said. "We'll be glad to help next week."
"I suspect there is a lot of complaining," said Capt. Greg Berg, commander of the LAPD's Communications Division, which sends squad cars out on 911 calls. "Only police work of major importance--life-threatening and serious crimes in progress--are dispatched under a mobilization." If you are the victim of a burglar, vandal, thief, trespasser, threatening spouse or hit-and-run driver--and the suspect does not pose an immediate threat--help will be hard, if not impossible, to come by, police say. If you do call police, chances are you'll be asked to go to your local station to file a report, because they can't come to you.
Since nearly all detectives are mobilized and on the streets, chances also are that no one will follow up on the report until things get back to normal.
"It's like a medical triage," said one deputy police chief. "You treat the ones who need it the most and then get to the others."
According to the LAPD manual, police response under a mobilization is limited to the "arrest, processing and detention of felony suspects and intoxicated drivers, and activities necessary to the immediate interest of public safety and protection of life and property."
Exactly what that means is anybody's guess, according to dozens of officers interviewed this week.
"We are trying as best we can," a weary Sgt. Tony Jett said at Wilshire Station. "But we only respond to people down, shot, hurt, calls to hospitals." As at other stations, hundreds of riot victims are coming into Wilshire seeking help and attention.
"This is going to have repercussions for the Police Department in a hundred different ways," said Sgt. Dennis Adams, head of the LAPD's bunco unit. In the absence of the mobilization, for instance, bunco detectives would be out investigating the scams and frauds that have popped up in the wake of the riots. Also put on hold are investigations involving such crimes as narcotics, juvenile and sex offenses.
"It's reached the point where the system is sinking--you can't adequately address the investigative and crime problems," said Adams. "And it will get worse when officers take their time off."
Deputy City Atty. Alana Bowman said only a tenth of the usual domestic abuse cases have been brought to court this week as usual, and she blamed poor police response.
Because the mobilization requires the department's 8,000 or so personnel to work 12-hour shifts, without vacations or days off, the amount of overtime they are accruing is enormous. But because of the city's budget shortfall, they will probably have to take time off later instead of being paid for the overtime, ensuring that the department will be spread thin.
The departmentwide redeployment has also prompted a domino effect through the criminal justice system that will be felt for a long time, said Cmdr. Robert Gil, a police spokesman.
Det. Tim Dotson of Central Division, for one, laments that some suspects have not been arrested and fears that some crime trails have grown cold.
Because police are relied upon to testify in criminal cases, prosecutors are afraid that they will have to ask for hundreds of continuances. They are also concerned that some defendants who are at risk of flight will be released on bail and have to be recaptured, said Greg Thompson, chief deputy district attorney.
Judges have been told to try to accommodate the police and continue as many cases as possible.
Even so, Thompson said, some "cantankerous" judges could dismiss cases and release suspects because police witnesses won't be available to testify. "There will be some of those, there's no question," Thompson said. "We'll be ready at the courthouse to arrest these people to get them back in the system and back in jail. But that means we have to start over again."
By this weekend, unless the threat of more rioting surfaces, the department hopes some officers will be able to trickle back to their normal business and that some detectives will be allowed to start attacking their backlog of cases.
City Councilman Marvin Braude, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said he will look into how the mobilization affected police services.
The committee, which has oversight responsibility over the Police Department, "will look to see if this was the best, most professional way to handle the situation," Braude said. "You want to know what the consequences were to the rest of the city--how much police were diverted from the areas of the city not impacted by the riots, and what the consequences were. I am deeply concerned about all of these things."
Meanwhile, crime has continued unabated, and some residents have complained that their problems have not been addressed.
City Councilman Richard Alatorre called police to express his concern after several constituents reported not being able to get help from police. An example, an Alatorre aide said, was a businessman who reported that he had been threatened by a man who said he planned to burn down the businessman's building and shoot his employees. Police finally talked to the man after Alatorre complained.
Pena, too is angry with police. He said he still fears the would-be assailant who has been to his South Los Angeles work site four times.
"We're all nervous here," Pena said of his 10 crew members. "I have to come to work with a shotgun every day."
Some Angelenos, however, have been more understanding.
Pete Ehlinger had his Toyota Supra stolen, but he said he doesn't blame the LAPD for not getting to his problem right away.
"It's property, it's not life-threatening and it's a crime that already occurred," said Ehlinger. "They have a lot more important things to do right now."