Where the Action Is : LAPD's Special Problems Unit Puts Heat on Street Criminals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parked in an unmarked cruiser at Pico Boulevard and Holt Avenue late one night, a pair of uniformed police officers see a man running down the sidewalk toward a parked car where two tourists are fumbling with a map.

The officers pull their car onto the sidewalk, blocking his path.

Dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt, black pants and black tennis shoes, the man tells the officers he wants to help the women find their way. He does not have an answer for the .357 Magnum in his hand.

He is a career criminal just out on parole from the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, where he did three years for armed robbery. Getting caught with a gun earns him nine more months of hard time.

Score one for SPU-CAT, a nine-member squad that fights violent crime in the Los Angeles Police Department's West L.A. Area. The name stands for Special Problems Unit--Criminal Apprehension Team, and it sounds like it looks: "Spew-Cat."

Five months old, the unit has seen a significant drop in armed robberies, purse snatchings, burglaries and auto thefts, including the arrest of a "Bonnie and Clyde" couple wanted for dozens of violent stickups from San Diego to San Francisco.

Its officers devote their afternoons to shuffling through street maps and crime reports. They look for patterns in the crimes that plague a 63-square-mile sprawl of busy commercial avenues, quiet neighborhoods and crowded apartment blocks.

Then they hit the streets, cruising for crooks in battered Fords and Chevys borrowed from West L.A. detectives.

They drive through the squalid blocks of gangster turf near the Santa Monica Freeway one night. They don black masks the next, crouching on rooftops along Pico Boulevard to spy for burglars.

Sometimes they hide for hours in the bushes, hoping to catch robbers at work.

Earlier this summer, they spent their Saturdays in Temescal Canyon, spotting car burglars and auto thieves from observation posts high on the hillside, then swooping down to pick them off. These crimes, once as frequent as 20 a week, are now down to near zero.

Their badges are shiny but their equipment is worn. The scratchy signals on their outdated radios are often hard to understand; sometimes they borrow the on-board computers of passing black-and-white patrol cars to check suspects' IDs.

All of them volunteered for the assignment, which takes them away from the officer's routine of responding to radio calls and writing preliminary reports for detectives to investigate.

Working from physical descriptions, license plate numbers and other scraps of information gleaned from victims and witnesses, they seek to stop and question as many likely suspects as they can.

One trick is to drive up alongside a suspicious vehicle in traffic and check to see if there are keys in the ignition. No keys means the car has been hot-wired.

Since they started their work in March, the officers have made 121 arrests for violent felonies, said Sgt. William Whyte, who heads the unit.

Most of the arrestees were on parole or probation, Whyte said. An arrest with a gun can be enough to send them back to prison, and indeed, about 70% are back behind bars.

"Our crime statistics are going down as our arrest statistics are staying up, which seems to support this use of police personnel," said Capt. Gary Brennan, commander of the Police Department's West Los Angeles Area, which includes the Westside portion of Los Angeles north of Venice Boulevard and west of La Cienega Boulevard.

But this kind of aggressive policing has its risks, physical and political, especially when an understaffed department is struggling to provide basic police services to a city that has yet to recover from last year's riots.

"It's a balancing act," said Capt. Ron Seban, patrol commander at the West Los Angeles station.

"Is it more important to have a little lower response time to radio calls, as opposed to putting people in jail that are robbing people at gunpoint in the street?" he asked. "I think I would go with the latter. . . . These guys value human life at nil, and the next thing you know, boom--someone is dead."

The officers do not apologize for being aggressive. Even when their stops do not result in arrests, they say, the point is made.

"I'm kind of hard-charging," said squad member Alex Guiral, 28, a former Marine sniper who has been on the police force for 4 1/2 years. "If I get paid to do something, I want to do it. I applied (to the force) to put criminals where they belong."

Toward the end of a quiet shift, Guiral and his partner, Chris Brazzill, 25, stop a car near La Cienega. According to DMV records, the license number belongs to a burgundy vehicle that supposedly has been impounded. This car, however, is white, and it is heading east on Olympic Boulevard.

P.C. (probable cause for arrest). The red light goes on. The car pulls over.

Four young men wearing baggy pants and sporting short haircuts and pigtails get out. Nobody has a license. Everybody has a tattoo. The car belongs to a friend, they say.

"Ever been arrested?" Brazzill asked a stocky fellow with the words "Searching For My Love" inscribed on the skin over his collarbones.

"No."

"That's hard to believe."

Nothing turns up to justify an arrest--the car has not been reported stolen. But none of the occupants is supposed to be driving. Markings on their arms and necks identify them as Columbia Little Psychos, affiliated with a larger group called the 18th Street Gang.

"I recommend you walk," Brazzill says. The four trudge off, but not until the driver, who is on parole for auto theft, locks the steering wheel with a widely advertised anti-theft device.

The police drive off. Half an hour later, a return to the scene reveals that the car is already gone.

On another night, Brazzill and Guiral pull over a pair of teen-agers in a Buick Regal that matches the description of a car used by a team of purse-snatchers.

They had been eyeing the purse of a woman who was reading while waiting for a bus, the two officers tell their sergeant. The young men identify themselves as Homeboy Crips. One has an arrest for auto theft, the other for tagging.

Again, no arrest, but Whyte says the message was delivered.

"If they were out capering tonight, they're not going to do it," he said. "And they're going to tell their buddies the police are all over the place."

Although commanders say the squad is largely responsible for a drop in violent-crime statistics, Jerome H. Skolnick, a criminologist and UC Berkeley law professor, said he is "very suspicious" of such units.

"The cops in them are hotshot cops who like this kind of freedom," said Skolnick, who recently co-authored a critical study of the Los Angeles Police Department. But their effectiveness is hard to measure, he said, and they can be overly aggressive.

"In order to get people to cooperate with them, they have to act in what cops call a 'badge-heavy' way," he said, having observed a similar unit at work in Oakland. "(This is) the kind of response that most police departments are trying to get away from rather than encourage."

Whyte would like to get Skolnick into his car for a ride-along. He would tell him a thing or three.

For example: "There has been not one allegation of brutality or physical abuse from any suspects we've arrested, from any witnesses or from anybody in the community, so we must be doing something right."

Or: "There's a real easy way to judge effectiveness. Is crime going up or down? The areas we work, the days we work, there's virtually no crime, and the days we go off there's a multitude of crimes. When they don't see us on the street, there's crimes galore."

The sergeant, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound, 25-year LAPD veteran, holds two decorations for bravery--the Medal of Valor and the Police Star.

He is also one of the few officers to return to the department after leaving on medical disability, an eight-year hiatus during which he rose to a well-paid position in a commercial real estate firm.

It was the Rodney G. King police beating case and its aftermath that made him want to come back, he said.

"I was watching the riot and I said to my wife, 'This can't be happening in L.A.,' " he said.

"When I take a real bad guy off the street, I've really done something to help my wife and your wife and all the people who can't help themselves," Whyte said. "My wife gets a thrill because every night I go to work with a smile on my face."

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