Foot patrols have been a much-touted part of Police Chief Willie L. Williams' community-based policing plan to forge better relations with residents. But in one Boyle Heights neighborhood, the effort, although well-received, has so far been marginally successful at best in the eyes of the community.
"When (the officers) leave, we are afraid to walk on the street," said Mary Rodriguez, who has lived in the Brooklyn Avenue area for 25 years. "That's when the gangbangers hang around."
Police officials maintain that foot patrols are more than a quick fix, that they are the key to curbing crime in troubled areas. And statistics from the Police Department's Hollenbeck Division back those claims.
Since January, when officers Ruben Rodriguez (no relation to Mary) and Kevin Congo began patrolling a 12-block area surrounding a stretch of Brooklyn Avenue, there has been a 4% decrease in reported crimes. Along the avenue itself, businesses have seen a 25% decrease in reported crimes such as robberies, purse snatchings and car thefts. And illegal street vendors, who one officer says "nickel-and-dime the merchants to death," are being ticketed on a more consistent basis.
Mirtha Ocampo, a cashier at Happy Fashions, has noticed a difference in the relationship between the neighborhood's merchants and law enforcement officers. "A long time ago, there were no foot patrols here, only cars. Now (the officers) are more friendly, more human," she said, adding that they provide an element of safety for her and her customers.
But many people in the neighborhood agree that the foot patrol has its limits.
Dean Zellman, owner of Zellman's Men's Wear, which has been on Brooklyn Avenue since 1921, has been robbed of about $500 worth of merchandise over the last year by gang members in the early mornings and late evenings, times when thieves know the foot-patrol officers are not on duty.
"They are only good for the couple of hours that they are out," Zellman said. "A good deal of crime occurs after these stores are closed.
"Two men are not enough. The problems here are growing drastically. They do help, but we need more of them."
Officer Rodriguez, 36, has been with the Police Department for 10 years, and has spent the last seven months walking the beat along Brooklyn Avenue with Congo, getting to know the merchants and residents.
"When we started our beat, we made it a point to introduce ourselves," Rodriguez said. "You have to take your time with them and talk to them. When you leave, you leave them with positive thoughts, like 'Hey, this guy really helped me.' "
Rodriguez said he has gone as far as giving some business owners his pager number so they can contact him when he is off duty. A more personal relationship with the community has been helpful, he said: "Crime has really dropped since our beat started. The two of us together do more and see more. There used to be only one guy on (Brooklyn Avenue) foot patrol."
Congo said that interaction between police and the community traditionally has been negative, in that people see police officers only when they are the victim of a crime--or getting a ticket.
"We are so friendly and so nice that they don't know how to handle it," said Congo, 27. "For a long time, police were afraid to be human."
But while the two officers are making an effort to forge a relationship with the community, and indeed are popular with many residents and merchants, they are distinctly unpopular with the area's illegal street vendors, who play a daily late-afternoon game of hide-and-seek along Brooklyn Avenue with the officers.
Dozens of vendors hide behind cars, dumpsters and nearby apartment buildings, waiting for Rodriguez and Congo's shift to end at 6. After they leave, the vendors haul out their tables and carts and set up shop. To make a living at this trade, they must start selling before the sun goes down and their potential customers head home.
But the officers caught on and began to vary their shift, coming on duty later and extending their patrols until 9. Vendors, left waiting for hours, cannot sell on those days. Rodriguez and Congo consider it a victory for the licensed merchants in their five-block beat.
Maria Perez has received two tickets for illegal vending in the past year, which cost her more than $200, about a week's earnings. "They should let us sell," she said in Spanish. "How are we supposed to make a living?"
"We want to pay the rent, and support our children--that's all," said another vendor named Maria who sells children's clothing and toys. Maria, who would only give her first name, said that as a taxpaying citizen, she believes her rights are being sacrificed to please the area's licensed merchants.
The officers are determined to assist merchants, cut crime and improve community relations.
"I see the same kids again and again in this neighborhood, and I give them a thumbs up," said Congo. "It is my sign to them," he said, displaying his technique to a small child walking past. The child responded accordingly, bringing smiles to both of their faces.