It’s nearly midnight when a brownish pickup truck pulls into a convenience store parking lot in North Hills. The driver beckons a youth waiting nearby. Money changes hands.
“There it is--he passed the cash!” a middle-age woman holding binoculars excitedly tells a stocky man, who repeats it into his hand-held radio. Another man videotapes the drug deal.
Three police cars swoop in and officers arrest both men, confiscating several cocaine rocks. The binocular woman high-fives the radio man. “Gotcha!” they shout.
Such scenes are being played out--and recorded--with increasing regularity in the San Fernando Valley, where Los Angeles police have trained civilian volunteers to covertly videotape drug dealers and other criminals in the act. In just one year, the Volunteer Surveillance Team has evolved into what police call an effective crime-fighting tool that is being studied by authorities throughout Southern California and the nation.
Unlike other surveillance programs, which police have used in varying forms for years, the aim is not just deterrence, but catching crooks.
“This is the most pure form of community-based policing,” said Lt. Kyle Jackson, who oversees the Devonshire Division program. “We have a volunteer force that is providing services to the city that is basically costing us nothing. . . . This is the crime-fighting technique of the future.”
And, oddly enough, it’s a technique that developed indirectly out of the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King. The LAPD launched its community-policing effort after the department’s reputation plummeted because of the beating, and that effort produced the Devonshire program.
Out of a pool of about 50 volunteers, officers can call on six or eight people to conduct surveillance operations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The unarmed volunteers perch in the dark on rooftops or crouch in vacant apartments, peering through shrouded windows. They record what they see with cameras, camcorders and notebooks. Police cars always maintain radio contact with them and usually hover a couple of blocks away.
“If you commit a crime in the area under observation,” Jackson said, “we will catch you.”
In the past year, police have conducted about 60 operations, arresting more than 40 suspected vandals, drug dealers, car thieves and burglars, as well as nabbing numerous parole and probation violators.
More important, Jackson said, “it gives people a way to fight back against crime and conquer the feelings of helplessness and frustration.”
Jackson pointed out two recent incidents in which, he said, “we never would have caught them without the volunteers.”
On March 10, after five nights of waiting on roofs of businesses, volunteers sent police after a man who later admitted shooting out 45 windows along a commercial strip in Granada Hills over several weeks using BB and pellet guns.
“We waited five days and nothing happened,” said one volunteer. “We did get a couple of drunk drivers, but we didn’t get our guy.” But just after midnight as volunteers were preparing to leave, they saw a man shoot out a shop window on Chatsworth Street as his girlfriend drove his car.
Within three minutes he was arrested and several guns were confiscated, Jackson said.
On Jan. 30, police arrested four Simi Valley teen-agers who are suspected of spraying graffiti on freeway overpass signs on the Simi Valley Freeway from Sylmar to Simi Valley. The youths were caught spray-painting a sign on the Rinaldi Street overpass.
“We watched them climb out there, pull out their paint, spray the sign and climb back,” said a woman volunteer who was hiding in nearby bushes. “Several of us saw it all and we got it on tape.”
The Devonshire unit is the only one of its kind in Los Angeles, although the Northeast Division had a similar, smaller program until a few months ago.
Redondo Beach police started using a similar surveillance program at the South Bay Galleria last December, and Moreno Valley in Riverside County has a surveillance effort targeting graffiti taggers that went on its first patrol Feb. 27. Officials from both cities contacted Devonshire officers as they planned their programs.
The Devonshire program also is being studied by police in Seattle; Tampa, Fla.; Baltimore; Portland, Ore., and Norfolk, Va.
“It might work here too,” said Capt. Keith Linton of the Tampa Police Department, which trains volunteers from about 100 Neighborhood Watch groups in police procedures for observing and reporting crime.
The Devonshire program is the latest twist in the increasing use of volunteers to augment scarce police resources, said Robert Trojanowicz, director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University.
For example, volunteers in San Diego, Pomona, Palmdale, Lancaster and Sun City, Ariz., actually patrol in city-owned cars, ready to report crimes with cellular telephones. The principal aim is deterrence; the cars carry municipal seals and many criminals would flee if they saw one coming.
But in Devonshire, secrecy is all-important.
The volunteers are particularly adept at apprehending car thieves and graffiti vandals.
“The LAPD can’t afford to have someone watch a wall for four hours,” said Officer Rick Gibby, who has coordinated numerous surveillance operations. “Our volunteers are willing to spend six hours on a weekend night waiting for some punk to tag a wall.”
In most cases, suspects spotted by the volunteers have pleaded guilty to avoid a trial. “When you observe and catch the suspect in the act, it’s an open-and-shut case,” Jackson said. “Most police arrests and convictions aren’t this easy.”
Not all volunteer spottings lead to arrests, at least not immediately.
When volunteers see a car pull up to a suspected drug dealer, they jot down the license number so police can mail a form letter to the car’s registered owner asking for “any information which would assist us in our war on drugs.” The warning is polite but obvious.
Civil libertarians, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have criticized the form letters but withheld comment on the volunteer program in Devonshire.
Jerome Skolnick, a UC Berkeley law professor who has written several books on community policing, said he generally supports the Devonshire team because it increases citizen involvement. But he and Trojanowicz said that such programs must go beyond apprehension to prevention.
Trojanowicz also cautioned that volunteers must be kept on a short leash by police. “You want people to be vigilant but not vigilantes,” Trojanowicz said.
The actions of the Devonshire volunteers are tightly prescribed.
The volunteers attended 12 hours of training sessions in police radio procedure, note-taking techniques and tips on testifying effectively in court. They are told to wear black clothing and warned never to leave their posts. They must provide their own cameras, camcorders and binoculars.
They also must sign waivers relieving the city of liability. The volunteers are covered by insurance during operations, but if a volunteer violates department policy, such as attempting to confront a suspect, the coverage ends.
As part of a class exercise, volunteers gathered on the roof of the Devonshire station, note pads and binoculars ready, and watched someone portraying a thief break into a car in the parking lot below and drive away. The rookie volunteers were stunned that it took only 45 seconds--so stunned they didn’t get a complete description.
Some said the thief wore a Windbreaker, others said a warm-up jacket. But all agreed it was green. They were right about the color, and many correctly copied the license plate. (For the record, it was a warm-up jacket.)
The training sessions are augmented by a follow-up meeting after each surveillance operation, with officers and volunteers analyzing what went right and what didn’t. An officer recently told volunteers that, although recording license plates is important, they should first get a general description of the vehicle so that officers can spot it from afar.
Members of the team, which is about half female, are mainly veterans of Neighborhood Watch groups, a few in their 30s and many in their 50s and 60s. Most are Anglos from upper-income areas of Porter Ranch and Granada Hills who have been galvanized by growing fears about crime in their community.
One volunteer said he decided to get involved after his daughter’s boyfriend was shot to death as he sat in his parked car.
“I had to do something,” he said.
In their first few months, surveillance operations led to very few arrests, through a mix of inexperience and bad luck.
In August, an observation position in North Hills was apparently compromised when volunteers were spotted as they were dropped off at a vacant apartment. Lookouts for the drug dealers began to periodically lift their T-shirts, a signal that police were nearby.
On another night, a police officer pointed out that a possible drug buyer managed to drive away untouched because several excited volunteers spoke on their radios simultaneously, canceling out each other’s transmissions.
Then there are many nights when the volunteers are in perfect position, the police backup cars are precisely coordinated and absolutely nothing happens.
“There’s no model for this,” Jackson said. “We just figured it out as we went along.”
Throughout the discouraging nights, volunteers tried to keep up their morale, knowing that sooner or later, they would get an arrest.
“It can get really, really boring,” said one woman volunteer who stood in a darkened apartment and sipped coffee that she brought in a thermos. “But once you get your first bust--you get hooked.”
A few feet away another woman nodded, saying she couldn’t wait for her first. She yawned and went back to scanning the parking lot of a convenience store.
About 20 minutes later, she spotted the brownish pickup truck.