Waiting for Trouble : Liquor Store Owners Welcome Crackdown on Loitering in South L.A. but Those Being Cited Complain of Harassment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

People looking for spare change or a place to kill time loved Fred Ruff's convenience store. Those same people were also killing Ruff's business.

"They'd worry you to death," he said. "Whenever a customer came in, they'd beg for dimes. And people would give them 50 cents just to get rid of them."

Ruff, who has run his small market at 50th Street and Central Avenue since 1969, said the loitering problem has escalated in the last few years.

"It would be the same people all the time," he said. "When I'd ask them to leave, they'd cuss me out. Sometimes they'd leave, and come right back."

To many residents of South Los Angeles, the crowds that gather near liquor stores are considered a threat to the community and a nuisance to those trying to maintain businesses.

Discarded milk crates and old couches line the sidewalks and parking lots outside many stores, providing gathering places for groups of men--and often a few women--who drink everything from an icy Budweiser to the rare fifth of Courvoisier (covered by a paper bag) as they talk about the goings-on in the neighborhood.

But a new police program cracking down on loitering and public drinking in South Los Angeles has made many area residents less anxious about going to their neighborhood stores.

For the past month, two police officers from the Newton Division near downtown Los Angeles have been assigned to do nothing but stop at stores and give tickets to loiterers and people drinking in public.

The officers say they have issued more than 350 citations, with fines ranging from $15 for blocking the sidewalk and $20 for loitering to $76 for violating the city's ordinance against open containers of alcohol in public places.

In addition, vice officers are paying closer attention to violations that could cost liquor store owners their licenses, such as selling liquor to minors or intoxicated customers.

"We want to make things better, so that a person can feel comfortable sending their 9-year-old kid to the store for a quart of milk," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Bill Chamberlain, who oversees the officers patrolling the area's stores.

But some of those cited by the officers say the cleanup campaign is little more than harassment, targeting harmless citizens who have been socializing at the same spot, in many instances, for years.

The loitering problem is nothing new.

"It's not that we have never recognized the problem, but we never had a program where we could consistently stay with it," said Capt. Larry Goebel, Newton Division's commanding officer. Two other police divisions in South Los Angeles--77th Street and Southwest--have expressed interest in launching similar programs, he said.

Goebel said that patrolling the area's stores will also reduce other crime "related to the activities of the people hanging around the stores," which could include offenses such as drug trafficking and assaults.

Yet many of those cited in the sweeps say they are part of the community too, and are being victimized by the ticketing campaign.

"The police around here think you are the lowest person in the world because you hang around a liquor store," said Samuel T. Carter, who was ticketed for sitting outside Ruff's market with an open can of beer.

Carter said officers "were like the Gestapo, yelling at me and my friends to leave."

Floyd Mason, 48, lives near the Gumbo Market at Vernon Avenue and Morgan Street. He said he has received three citations for having an open container of alcohol on the sidewalk outside the store.

"I have to go somewhere to blow off steam, so that's why I hang out at the liquor store," said Mason. "We don't have anywhere else to go. I wish we could get some kind of recreation center or pool hall. This is the only social life I have."

Mason said taking his "associates" to his home to socialize and drink is out of the question.

"Why would I take 'em to my house? So they can steal my television?" he said. Gesturing toward the other men gathered nearby, Mason added, in earshot, "They're not to be trusted."

None of the men challenged his assessment of their character.

The cleanup program--called ACTION (Advisory Committee to Improve Our Neighborhood)--grew out of the public outcry against the rebuilding of liquor stores destroyed during the riots. After a series of community meetings on the issue, police sent letters to residents involved in the area's Neighborhood Watch program, asking if they would help monitor the liquor stores by maintaining a log of recurring problems and documenting progress made through the crackdown.

In addition to keeping an eye on the stores, the Newton Division officers are holding training meetings for store owners and their employees. The idea is to remind owners that they are responsible for maintaining lawful businesses, officers said.

During a recent meeting, store owners said they were happy to see police paying more attention to their problems.

"I think this is a good start," said Douglas Chun, 19, who attended the meeting to help translate for his mother, Kunsik Chun. "But the biggest problem isn't the people who loiter," said Chun, who is part owner of a liquor store at 32nd Street and Central Avenue. "It's the gangbangers, and the drive-bys."

Police have suggested that owners get rid of old couches and milk crates placed in front of their stores by those who want to hang out. Store owners were also encouraged to prominently display signs detailing the city's law against open containers.

Karen Bass, who heads a group working to limit the number of liquor stores in South Los Angeles, praised the program as "something very positive in terms of having owners more informed about their responsibility to the community."

But while store owners say they are grateful for the help, many still feel the problem is uncontrollable.

"This is their corner and they own it," complained Eli Adaimy, who owns Johnson's liquor store at Vernon and Long Beach avenues, across from a Metro Blue Line stop. "Like this guy--he lives here," Adaimy said, pointing to one man who had stood in front of his store for most of the morning, then wandered inside after the police drove up. "The only way to get rid of them would be to shoot them," Adaimy said.

But Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose district is the focus of the program, is optimistic. The police crackdown, she says, "makes people feel someone cares about this community."

Before the program was launched, Sally Ramirez was angry about having to worry when she sent her 14-year-old son to buy the newspaper a neighborhood store near 58th Street and Central Avenue. She jumped at the chance to serve on the police-citizen ACTION committee.

"I've been accosted," Ramirez said, recounting times she attempted to enter a local store near her home. "I even had one guy try to lay his hands on me. And I got tired of sweeping the condoms and syringes out of my driveway."

Ramirez says things have improved since officers began issuing tickets.

"Normally, when I go to work at 7:30, there'd be five people already in front of the store," she said. "They're not there anymore. There are no more couches, milk crates, or shopping carts with their worldly goods inside. There's no more garbage around.

"People have finally gotten fed up. (Loiterers) are going to get the message."

And some business owners are also happy with the early results.

Odis Charles, 69, has run an ice business across the street from Ruff's store for 13 years.

"Things look a little better, as far as I can see," said Charles, though he recognizes that just moving people away from the corner will not solve nagging problems in his neighborhood.

"This is a hard job, what (police have) got to do," he said. "There are too many people with no jobs. They need to get some of these people jobs."

Meanwhile, Ruff sees an obvious result from the police patrols.

"For two years I was calling the cops, asking them to help me clean up the area in front of my store," he said. "Now, since they've been coming by every day and giving citations to the folks hanging out, business has picked up.

"People used to be scared to come into my store. That's not the case anymore."

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