Raising their sights from smoky bars and topless joints, the LAPD's vice squads are focusing on city zoning laws in new attempts to prevent crime.
Vice and other police officers have become a familiar sight in city hearing rooms. And next month, the city Board of Zoning Appeals will consider the first-ever appeal by the Police Department of a conditional-use permit.
The case involves a tiny specialty meat shop in Reseda, which caters to Latinos. The owner, Antonio Gonzalez, was granted a permit earlier this summer by a city zoning administrator to sell beer and wine.
But police, angry over the prospect of more liquor sales in a crime-plagued pocket of the San Fernando Valley, appealed the decision.
Police officers commonly offer advice on zoning cases. But police and city planning officials say the Gonzalez appeal is a sign of new involvement by law enforcement in the mechanics of urban planning.
Zoning "is being used as a tool now," said Sgt. Dan Hoffman, vice enforcement coordinator for the LAPD.
"Most commanding officers don't want new bars in their area, or new liquor locations or new dance halls," explained Lt. Jim Voge, the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Commission investigation division. ". . . What you have is an increased police interest in using zoning laws as vehicles to stop these businesses when they have problems."
Monitoring enforcement of the city's powerful zoning codes is just an extension of the principles of community-based policing, Hoffman argues.
"This is not a blanket protest policy. We are responding to community needs," Hoffman said, adding, "I don't want anyone thinking the LAPD is not letting people make a living."
One of the first significant zoning actions, Hoffman said, was last year's battle over a liquor permit for the Red Onion restaurant in Woodland Hills. Citing frequent liquor sales to minors and brawls at the popular nightspot, police sought and won revocation of the Red Onion's conditional-use permit to sell liquor, according to zoning officials. An appeal is pending.
Officers are now encouraged to track all manner of land-use cases on their beats, said Hoffman, who arranged a workshop on zoning last month.
"I wanted everyone to know that this was available and a nice technique to know if they are having problems in their divisions," Hoffman said.
Recently, police have opposed zoning permits on everything from dance halls to a movie theater to a recycling shop. Alcohol is not always involved.
But liquor outlets have been a special target, said Capt. Ronald Bergmann, patrol commander in the West Valley Division.
"Liquor stores create a neighborhood crime problem," Bergmann said. "People buy beer, then they go out in the parking lot and sit in their pickup trucks or on bumpers or on sidewalks. We don't want those things to start here."
Conditional-use permits for liquor stores have preoccupied police in South-Central Los Angeles as owners of stores, destroyed in last year's riots, apply for new permits or as permits come up for review.
Sgt. Arthur Reyna, officer in charge of the vice unit in South-Central's 77th Street Division, said police working to halt or limit liquor permits have expanded their efforts to include other troublesome businesses--motels frequented by prostitutes, for example.
They've found zoning can stifle crime problems that police could never quite stamp out before, he said.
"We've found we can have more say-so in what happens with these places," Reyna said. "In the past we'd go arrest prostitutes and it would just happen again."
Computer programs that make it easier to pinpoint crimes to a given location as well as the growing awareness of zoning laws are changing the way vice cops do business, he said.
"In the past I never had any of my officers dealing with planning and zoning," Reyna said. "Now, I check up on cases two or three times a week."
Lt. John Waters, Valley Bureau vice coordinator and head of North Hollywood's vice unit, agreed.
"Before, when we smelled a rat, there wasn't a whole lot we could do," Waters said.
The police appeal of the Gonzalez liquor permit left Gonzalez's representative, Patrick Panzarello, feeling ambushed.
"I was almost incredulous," he said.
Also disconcerted was Associate Zoning Administrator Albert Landini, whose decision to approve Gonzalez's permit is the subject of the appeal.
Landini said police have entered a "gray area" between enforcement and regulation.
"They are the experts on crime. But I don't know whether it's appropriate for them to make land-use determinations," he said.
"This is just a guy, a guy with a market. He wasn't Mr. Slick," added Landini. "Shouldn't we be focusing on those (businesses) with a proven crime record rather than these new businesses trying to start up?"
To Gonzalez, who has owned Carniceria Corona for about 18 months, the police approach is a bitter and unexpected setback.
"If I don't get a license, I may go broke," he said, adding that he has already spent about $7,000 in filing and consultant fees to get the permit.
Gonzalez contends his store is being unfairly singled out.
"Right now, crime is everywhere, not only here," he said. "I don't sell it (alcohol) to criminals. Just some people who want to drink at home."
Carniceria Corona, at 18326 Sherman Way, does business in a strip of downtown Reseda where pawnshops, a roller rink and instant check-cashing outlets are crowded between empty storefronts.
Thefts, vandalism and other crimes in that area are high, with about 696 incidents reported annually compared to a citywide average of 475 per reporting district, said West Valley Vice Officer Andy Markel.
Bergmann said the shop is in a neighborhood already over-saturated with businesses that sell liquor by the drink (on-sale sites), and near saturation for businesses that sell alcohol for consumption off the premises (off-site), according to state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control guidelines.
According to those guidelines, there should be no more than one off-site license per 1,222 people in a given census tract, said Jim Smith, district administrator of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in Van Nuys.
Carniceria Corona is in a tract with four existing off-site liquor outlets, and 13 on-sale outlets. Five off-site licenses and six on-sale licenses meet the ABC's definition for saturation in the tract, Markel said.
Overall, in the north Los Angeles County region, which includes the Valley, the number of licensed premises selling liquor are holding steady at about 3,500, Smith said.
The connection between alcohol sales and crime is key to the upcoming case before the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Police say the connection is straightforward, especially as it relates to liquor permits: the more permits, the more crime.
"You are dealing with an element who will walk two doors down to a mini-market who won't go a mile down to a supermarket," Bergmann said. "It's going to increase the amount of alcohol sold, let's face it."
But Landini, who approved the two-year Gonzalez permit, says it isn't that simple.
Landini said that cultural and economic factors also play a part.
Stores such as Gonzalez's, catering to a Spanish-speaking clientele, are popping up in the Valley to serve a growing Latino population. Some new residents prefer to walk to small, neighborhood shops on a daily basis, rather than patronizing large supermarkets.
Thus, new liquor permits for smaller shops don't necessarily mean more alcohol sales, Landini contends. They merely signal a cultural shift.
Panzarello, Gonzalez's consultant, agreed.
Carniceria Corona, he said, "isn't going to be a liquor store. It's obvious it's just a meat market . . . these mom-and-pop places need to have an edge on the competition just to survive."
The case is scheduled to be heard by the city Board of Zoning Appeals Oct. 19.