It was a scene that would have been difficult to envision just a few years back--side by side, amid the mariachis and colorful balloons, were police officers and residents of the South-Central Latino community.
Spanish-speaking parents chatted with the bilingual officers, who provided information on everything from starting a Neighborhood Watch to joining the Los Angeles Police Department. Children giggled as they petted "Runner," one of the department's drug-sniffing dogs.
In many parts of the city, officers mingling with residents is not uncommon. But in the Latino neighborhoods of South-Central--where fear of police prevents many from reporting crimes--last month's "LAPD Day" at the Catholic Church of the Nativity was an important step in building bridges between police and the area's heavily immigrant community, officers and residents said.
The event was organized by the department's 77th Street Division station and the neighborhood Hispanic Advisory Council, which was formed by officers about a year ago as part of their community-based policing program.
"In the past, many Latinos here haven't had much faith in the police," said council president Jose Trujillo, 36, a 14-year South-Central resident who has been involved in Neighborhood Watch programs. "We've come a long way in changing that."
For the past year, from an office inside the church, the 77th Street station has operated its Community Contact Center, where an officer and a volunteer member of the advisory committee offer advice and take complaints on problems ranging from gang members dealing drugs to illegal dumping of trash and furniture.
The center and committee were started by Officers Mario Munoz and Maria Marquez with the help of aides from Councilwoman Rita Walters' office.
Police estimate that about 70% of the 169,600 residents in the 11.8-square-mile area served by the 77th Street station are Latino. Many are recently arrived immigrants from countries where police have been tied to criminal rings and right-wing death squads. These immigrants bring their fear of the police with them, authorities say.
"For a lot of the Hispanics, the police in their countries are not very trustworthy and sometimes are out-and-out criminals," said Father David Herrera of the Church of the Nativity.
To overcome that fear, Munoz and Marquez approached neighborhood leaders they had met over the years with the idea of starting the advisory council. "We figured that if we could get to these people and let them understand what we were about, we could get rid of the barriers," said Marquez, an 11-year veteran who has patrolled the 77th Street station's area since 1984.
In addition to running the contact center, the advisory council brings in speakers to discuss subjects such as applying for citizenship and registering to vote. With about 250 members, the council is run by an eight-person board of directors.
Marquez said the Church of the Nativity was picked as the site for the contact center because it is a gathering place for many Latino residents. Residents added that the church is a good location because some people are afraid to be seen at the police station for fear of being labeled informers.
"(People) feel more at ease at the church. Nobody knows what they're doing there," said Ann Diaz, 23, who grew up in South-Central and is the project director for the advisory council.
Trujillo and others said the advisory council initially started with a couple of dozen residents. Between 75 and 100 regularly attend the monthly meetings at the church, Marquez said.
Diaz, a West Los Angeles College student, is at the contact center every weeknight. She passes out information and works as a paid church clerical worker. Marquez is there Thursday evenings.
In addition to taking reports, Marquez passes out Spanish-language brochures with crime prevention tips and contact numbers for the 77th Street station. During a typical evening, anywhere from three to 15 people visit the contact center, Diaz said.
"More people are finding out about us," Diaz said. She and others have canvassed the neighborhood and posted flyers to let residents know about the advisory council and the center.
Although residents and police acknowledge that much more needs to be done to build bridges between the department and the community, they say the advisory council and the center represent the first step in the long process of improving relations.
"It's imperative that we get the perspective of the area's growing Hispanic community," said Commander Art Lopez, acting commander of the department's South Bureau, which includes South-Central. "That's the biggest reason why you have to have these types of councils."
* RAPPIN' OFFICERS: An open house at the 77th Street station featured rap by hip-hop cops. 11