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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The Battlefront : No Stranger on the Streets of His Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Driving through his city, San Fernando Police Officer Adrian Flores is a reassuring and familiar face to most people in the tiny city he patrols.

Residents on an early morning jog wave as his patrol car passes. Business owners smile as they notice him passing through the outdoor shopping district. Children want to shake his hand when they see him in a restaurant.

Even the city’s gang members don’t run the other way at the sight of him.

“I think they feel more comfortable here because we are like a small town,” said the 30-year-old officer. “Everyone knows everyone.”

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The 2.4-square mile city of San Fernando, with a population of a mere 22,580, has long been an oasis in the northeastern San Fernando Valley surrounded by crime-ridden Los Angeles neighborhoods.

And their 84-year-old Police Department has a small-town feel too.

Everyone in the station house knows who in the department is having troubles with their relationships, the chief knows each patrol officer by name and some officers have worked with one another for 20 years.

And because San Fernando is not a big city, their department receives some perks that other law enforcement organizations could only dream of. Four new police cars every two years--half the department’s motor pool--state-of-the-art radios, Benelli semiautomatic rifles for each car and a nearly brand-new station to go along with it all.

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But the perks come easy when you have only 35 officers to provide for, including the chief, and there are only eight patrol cars, including the watch commander’s. On slow days, such as weekends and holidays, two officers are responsible for the entire city. On weekdays, as many as five officers are on patrol.

Although San Fernando police officers constantly get ribbed by officers from other agencies about the size of their city and its lack of crime--there were no murders or rapes in San Fernando last year and only seven robberies, 17 stolen cars and 24 assaults within city limits in 1994--most are proud of the community they serve.

“We face the same people as the LAPD, but because we are smaller and know our community better we face less danger,” said Flores, who has been on the department for four years. “And who knows, maybe one of them might even watch over us one day.”

In a city as small as theirs, there is also time to respond to each medical emergency, handle all traffic accidents and cruise by houses where residents are on vacation.

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It also leaves time for pro-active police work like the bike detail that patrols the city’s four parks and the downtown area’s San Fernando Mall.

While on his bike patrol, Flores said people good-naturedly tease him about his bike and riding outfit, usually shorts with a white shirt, but then start opening up to him.

“People are more apt to talk to you if you are on a bike than if you are in a patrol car,” Flores said. “The bikes are less menacing than a patrol car.”

But all is not merry for a member of a small police department. Advancement is slow; it literally takes a death or retirement for a position to open up. A fatal traffic accident can keep a whole shift busy and off-duty officers won’t be off duty for long.

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Or, as Flores has found, if you live in or near the city you serve, most likely you will be recognized by someone you have arrested.

While on a shopping excursion at the San Fernando Mall with his family, a gang member he once arrested tapped him on the shoulder as he strolled through the open-air mall.

“I turned around slowly and saw this kid,” recalled Flores. “He just said ‘What’s up, man’ and that was it. I was like, ‘Oh, hi.’ That was a little too close for comfort.”

Flores is no stranger to the city himself, which contributed to his decision to join the San Fernando Police Department. He was born at the now-renamed San Fernando Hospital, his first home was within city limits on Jessie Street and he attended grade school through junior high in the city.

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“I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else,” he said. “To me, San Fernando is home.”


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