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Koreatown Funds Own Police Station : Law enforcement: Faced with low city budgets and high crime, community bucks trend and bands together to raise $400,000.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You might call it Community-Paid Policing. Or Lean-Times Law.

Residents, churches and businesses--nearly all of them Korean American--have put up $400,000 to turn a boarded-up former bank in the West Adams district into a police station. A grateful Los Angeles Police Department is preparing to house 30 officers there.

That’s just the start. The station’s boosters say they will raise an additional $1.5 million to pay for the station’s upkeep when it opens, perhaps next year.

The community-chest approach fixes a problem created by conflicting trends: The LAPD wants to expand. The Wilshire Division, which patrols West Adams and surrounding areas, is so crowded that officers work out of trailers. And voters won’t pass bond issues to pay for new facilities.

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Smaller community-funded substations are common in Los Angeles. But the West Adams substation project--on Western Avenue just north of the Santa Monica Freeway--is the first on such a large scale funded entirely through community donations. Law enforcement experts say it may be the only such project in the United States.

The substation is such a popular solution that groups sometimes at odds have rallied behind it: The substation’s board is composed primarily of Korean Americans and African Americans, and both Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Willie L. Williams are backing the plan.

But the effort also goes against a longstanding ethic intended to keep law enforcement pure. Police departments have generally had policies against taking any contributions--even free doughnuts--that might raise a donor’s expectation of preferential service.

The issue is more than academic because the largest individual donor to the West Adams substation has been cited for thousands of labor law violations.

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Generally speaking, private contributions to law enforcement should be viewed with the same ethical strictness as political contributions, says Hubert Williams, a former Newark, N.J., police chief who heads the Washington-based Police Foundation.

“People look at large contributors and wonder whether [donors] perceive that they have rights beyond those of ordinary taxpayers,” Williams said.

However, when high crime meets low budgets, and when Proposition 13’s two-thirds majority requirement for tax increases seems insurmountable, supporters say there’s little choice.

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“If we decide that the only way we’ll fund a station is if the city funds it through a bond issue, nothing goes forward. Nothing gets done,” said Capt. John P. Mutz, commanding officer of the Wilshire Division.

Mutz said that there’s little risk of police service being biased by donations because the money is being handled by a private nonprofit fund-raising group.

The largest individual donor to the West Adams substation is Richard Rhee, owner of a chain of Korean supermarkets in Koreatown, who has given $20,000 to the project. He has also been cited for 5,934 violations of state labor law at his markets. The citations include multiple criminal counts. If he is convicted, Rhee, who is awaiting trial, could face up to six years in prison.

Another donor, bar owner Johnny Koo, is awaiting a Los Angeles Police Commission ruling on whether the permit for his Koreatown nightclub will be suspended. Koo, who donated $750 for office equipment, has been cited for 16 violations of police permit requirements. They include several stemming from shootings at his bar, and two alcoholic beverage licensing violations, one of which involved serving liquor to a 17-year-old youth.

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Efforts to contact Rhee and Koo were unsuccessful.

Organizers of the substation project did not check the backgrounds of donors, and were unaware of the complaints against the donors when told of them by a Times reporter.

Board members were divided over the implications of such donations.

Yohngsohk Choe, a director of the project, said he does not think a donor’s background is a problem because donations are not made directly to the LAPD. He said that performing background checks on donors could also discourage some from contributing.

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But Paul C. Hudson, president of Broadway Federal Savings and Loan and co-director of the fund-raising campaign, said that background checks for donors should be considered.

“Clearly, there’s an appearance of conflict if a donor has outstanding issues that impact the LAPD or law enforcement,” Hudson said. “If it had been brought to my attention I would say you’d have to make an effort to screen your donors.”

Mutz, who also was unaware of the legal troubles of the two donors, said that the community group heading the project should oversee donor issues.

“If there’s a question of a conflict of interest it ought to be addressed by the board. The donations aren’t controlled by the LAPD,” he said.

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Beyond image problems, some critics say police service simply shouldn’t be dependent on contributions.

“I don’t think the community should have to raise the money,” said Roy Hong, a Koreatown labor organizer. “If anything, Koreans who bore the brunt of the damage during the riots should demand better service from the police and city. It sets a dangerous precedent that when the community wants something as basic as police it has to raise money.”

The substation would be built in a former Security Pacific Bank branch in the West Adams district, a mile south of Koreatown, that was closed shortly after the bank merged with Bank of America in 1992. Bank of America agreed to donate the building to the city for use as a police substation in 1993.

The donation came when the Koreatown Assn. of Los Angeles was seeking a police substation in the area.

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With the LAPD’s blessing, a spinoff group called the Koreatown Public Safety Assn. was formed in 1994 to raise funds to renovate the bank building and operate it as a substation.

By passing the collection plate in Korean churches and making direct appeals to Koreatown businesses and residents through Korean language news media, the group was able to raise $400,000 in little over a year. A single church, the Oriental Mission Church--a Koreatown landmark built in a former Vons supermarket--raised $100,000.

Hollywood Park was another large donor, contributing $20,000. The racetrack’s owners previously pledged to donate a site for a new Inglewood police headquarters as part of the deal that enabled it to build a card club in the city.

The city is finalizing the transfer of the building. When the substation is completed, Mutz expects the building to house foot patrol officers, the bicycle patrol unit, the division’s Koreatown Task Force and the senior lead officers who supervise neighborhood policing efforts.

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The building also will be used by neighborhood associations and community groups for meetings.

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Organizers say that as a community center as well as a police station, the project will help unite residents.

George Richter, a Koreatown resident who is also a director, says: “It’s not just about a building. It’s about people working together and building a community.”

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That’s an ambitious task for an area as diverse as the Wilshire Division, whose territory runs roughly from Beverly Boulevard on the north to the Santa Monica freeway on the south, and from La Cienega Boulevard to Normandie Avenue. Of the division’s 192,000 residents, 40% are Latino, 22% are white, 21% black and 17% Asian American.

The difficulty of pleasing all sides in such an area was illustrated by the reaction in West Adams, which is populated mainly by Latinos, blacks and whites. Many in West Adams were upset.

“West Adams residents had been trying for years to get a substation, and many felt giving the building to the Koreatown group was adding insult to injury,” said banker Hudson, who grew up near the site of the substation.

But the West Adams and Koreatown residents were able to turn a dispute into a partnership. This year, the organizing group was renamed the Koreatown-West Adams Public Safety Assn., and Hudson and others were added to the board. Former critics are now optimistic that the project can be a good example of a multiracial alliance.

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Despite the efforts at inclusion, a remaining sore spot is the absence of Latino participants in the project.

“Latinos are the majority in the Mid-City area and it strikes me as weird that there aren’t any on the board,” said Roberto Lovato, executive director of CARECEN, a social service center for Central American immigrants.

Board members say they are trying to recruit more Latinos. Herman DeBose, a Cal State Northridge sociology professor who joined the board after it was reorganized, said that such efforts will decide the success of the project.

“If everyone is included it has tremendous potential to show what can be done in Los Angeles, but if some are excluded it has the potential to be a tragic failure.”

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