Amid growing problems with theft and lewd behavior, Los Angeles police and park rangers have begun a crackdown on criminal activity in the vast Sepulveda Basin.
Authorities have resorted to sending undercover vice officers into areas known as meeting places for homosexual sex, and posting police and citizen volunteers in the bushes to spot car thieves and burglars.
Some parts of the basin are being closed at dark to prevent crime, and parks officials are trying to permanently change the city law to enforce the sunset curfew over a wide portion of the 2,037-acre basin.
The campaign by police and city park rangers, who patrol unarmed, has taken on increased urgency in recent months because of fears that serious urban crime may be spreading into the recreational basin.
Two shooting incidents occurred in the Sepulveda Basin in the past year. In April, two people were killed and four injured when gunfire erupted in a fight at a fraternity gathering there. In May, two people were wounded during a confrontation at a music festival in Woodley Park.
The shootings were a wake-up call to park officials and police. Shortly thereafter, rangers began closing most of Woodley and Balboa parks at dark and hope to make the closures permanent in some areas of the basin.
"It's sad that we have to close down a park because of the gangs and other crimes," said Phillip Manzi, senior park ranger who oversees Valley patrols. "But we're not isolated from the city around us."
Only two to four park rangers patrol the entire San Fernando Valley at any given time, Manzi said. Rangers who work at night often fear for their safety.
Ranger Jess Munoz, who patrols the basin alone five nights a week, said that if he sees tough-looking youths after dark, he frequently does not leave his patrol truck. Instead he orders them to leave by loudspeaker.
"My only defense is my radio," Munoz said. "If I see something that looks dangerous, I call for help."
As police crack down on gangs in other parts of the Valley, authorities fear that gang members may begin to use the basin to conduct criminal activity, as has happened in the past in Orcas Park and other areas near Hansen Dam.
"They may try to claim it as their turf," Manzi said. "Gang bangers are not afraid of park rangers. We're not armed. They are.
"As a park ranger, I can't solve society's problems. I can't solve gang problems. But it's my duty to try to keep this out of the parks," Manzi added.
City law now authorizes parks to be closed only from 10:30 p.m to 5 a.m. The earlier curfew was instituted on an emergency basis by park officials following the shootings.
The Los Angeles Parks Commission voted Nov. 23 to permanently change the law to close most of the basin's recreation areas at sunset. The measure, which is expected to come before a City Council committee in late January or February, would enact a sunset to sunrise curfew in about 170 acres of the basin. The affected areas include parts of Balboa Park, Woodley Park and Sepulveda Wildlife Preserve.
The curfew allows the city to restrict access to the basin area at night and makes park rangers who work that shift feel safer. But most of the area's crime occurs during daylight hours, police said.
The vast basin area is shared by two police divisions, Van Nuys on the east and West Valley on the west. Both divisions have coordinated their patrols with rangers.
"We don't have the manpower to do everything we would like to do there so we try to make up for it," said Officer Shelly Gale, who oversees police patrols in part of the basin area.
While the shootings this year are regarded as out of the norm, rangers and police fight a day-to-day battle against auto burglaries and thefts as well lewd conduct in the area.
Gale and other officers have said the most serious problem has been car theft and auto burglary, both of which mainly occur during the day when golfers or joggers leave valuables in their cars.
The number of car-related crimes dropped, Gale said, after police posted undercover officers and citizens in the nearby bushes several times recently.
"We find that once we make a few arrests, it will stop for awhile," Gale said.
The problems of lewd conduct have been even more frustrating for police. Parts of Woodley and Balboa parks have become a popular meeting place for gays who have sex in nearby bushes, cars or restrooms, police said.
In Woodley Park from 1988-90, there was an average of 30 to 40 arrests a month for lewd conduct, Manzi said. Now arrests are down to two or three a month. Meanwhile, Hoffman said there were 59 lewd conduct arrests in Balboa Park in 1991 while there were only about 28 arrests for the first 10 months of this year.
Police attribute this to a mix of undercover officers who make arrests and highly visible patrol units who discourage the activity by their mere presence.
"I could go out there undercover and pull a body out of there every day," said Sgt. Dan Hoffman. "But our goal isn't arrests. It's deterrence. We'd rather chase people away when we can."