All the Crime That's Fit to Print

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a Wednesday ritual. A hot topic at parties. The object of an ever-growing cult following.

It is the Crime Blotter of the Los Angeles Independent, a free weekly community newspaper with a circulation of 180,000 that tells readers in the Los Angeles Basin all the gory details about what is going on in their neighborhoods.

The crimes are as banal as the theft of a cellular phone from a Westwood Volvo. As heinous as the man stabbed and left for dead in the L.A. River who regained consciousness, staggered to a pay phone and called 911. And as bizarre as the man in a red dress and high heels running down Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park at 3 a.m. chasing another man.

"It's an ongoing weekly soap opera about Los Angeles," says Daniel Fisher of Silver Lake, an avid fan who has turned on friends and neighbors to the wonders (and horrors) of the Crime Blotter.

"I feel evangelical about it," he says. "I'll say to people, 'Hey, did you read the one last week?' At KCET, where I work, it's an ongoing topic of conversation around the water cooler."

The Independent, which is owned by National Media Inc., puts out six editions (plus a bilingual Spanish version) and circulates in Culver City, West L.A., Hollywood, West Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire and Northeast L.A., which encompasses Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Atwater. Each edition carries local news, reviews and advertising. And each has its own distinctive crime log.

Publishing police blotters has been tried in many places, but Brian Lewis, editor of the Independent, says the idea for this one came to him five years ago while he was sitting at home one evening watching "Dragnet."

"I wanted it to be simple, declarative writing," he says, taking on the intonation of Jack Webb. "This is the city. These are the facts. It's your community. This is what happens."

So he called up police stations; officers were happy to cooperate in alerting residents to crime. The Crime Blotter entries are compiled directly from official police reports, although Lewis says he and his reporters often have to translate "cop talk" into plain English.

Each entry includes the day, time and block number of the street on which the crime took place. The names of victims and their exact addresses are not listed, although regular and discerning readers can often read between the lines to get at the information.

Still, the log is highly idiosyncratic, with details and flourishes rarely found in newspaper writing. There is a flash fiction quality to some entries that verge on the surreal.

Consider what the late Charles Bukowski could have done with this one from mid-August: "5 a.m., 3500 block of Garden Avenue. A man picked up a woman at a pool hall and took her home. When he woke up, he found a clamp on his penis. The woman then called 911."

Even the issue of race plays out in the Crime Blotter. Here's one that occurred at 6:35 p.m. in the 2600 block of Fletcher Drive: "An African American man wearing a dark baseball cap and dark sunglasses pointed a gun at a man and told him to give him some money. 'Nothing personal,' the suspect said. 'I just want the money. Tell them I was a white guy.' "

Many of these crimes would never make even the inside pages of daily metropolitan newspapers because in a city drenched with murder, they simply aren't awful enough. Yet along with the latest on O.J. Simpson and Linda Sobek, inquiring minds in Los Angeles also want to know what's happening down the block from where they live.

Lewis, who lives in West L.A., admits he takes notice when he reads about a crime near his home. Others say the crime log alerts them to mini crime waves in their neighborhoods, such as the ring of thieves that was stealing car doors from Jeeps in West L.A. and Hollywood.

It has even helped the police catch bad guys, says Deputy Bruce Thomas, crime prevention officer at the West Hollywood sheriff's station.

"It's definitely helped us apprehend suspects by providing us with an extra set of eyes and ears," he says. "We'll put something in the Crime Blotter and then people will call in to report suspicious vehicles or people."

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In this huge disconnected city, the Crime Blotter provides Angelenos with a valuable sense of community, a hometown jungle drum that sounds the alarm and spreads news about our geographic tribes.

Kevin Starr, the state librarian and professor at USC's School of Urban Planning and Development, says newspaper crime logs provide the sort of neighborhood watch function that used to be assumed by busybodies and Main Street merchants.

"It's human instinct to have that experience, and people want to see themselves reflected in the community. Crime logs represent the texture and quality of life," Starr says.

Indeed, the Crime Blotter gets more calls and letters to the editor than any other feature or column, Lewis says. On weeks that it doesn't run because of missed deadlines or space restrictions, angry readers call up wanting to know what happened.

Some victims also call and complain if the newspaper fails to include their crime in that week's log. Lewis says he knows a staff person for an elected city official who boasted that her burglary "made" the Crime Blotter.

Once, the Independent even got a call from a man who had formed a Wilshire (edition) Crime Blotter Fan Club. He and his friends would call up their friends each week and read the most outrageous crimes over each other's answering machines.

Sometimes, it is the combination of the mundane and the outrageous that get the reader. Some examples:

* The man who was so angry when his wife announced she was moving out that he broke the furniture, smashed a window and threw the cat on the roof.

* The robber who broke into the house of a sleeping woman, grabbed her wallet and purse, kissed her on the lips and then ran out.

* The robber who stole a $10,000 watch from a man who was sleeping at a bus stop.

* The man who received repeated crank calls from someone who said, "I want to feel your muscles."

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Earlier this year, Los Angeles artist Franklin Odel even used the Crime Blotter in an art exhibit called "Without Alarm" at the former Lincoln Heights Jail. Odel blew up entries from the crime blotter and placed them inside Xeroxed photographs of the streets where the crimes had occurred, superimposing descriptions of the violent acts over peaceful street photos.

But the Crime Blotter irks as well as inspires. A recent spate of letters to the editor debated the newspaper's policy of printing the suspect's race along with the crime.

In an Oct. 2 letter, reader Harris Farber of Los Angeles said he was bothered that the paper "continually state[d] the race or national origin of the suspected perpetrators. Many years ago newspapers stopped stating this information except if it was part of a description that would help lead to the capture of that suspect."

Others disagreed. "Stating the race of suspects in Crime Blotter is very important. It is neither racist not offensive. . . . To cover up a part of reality, that to me is racist," responded Michael Martinez of Hollywood.

Lewis says the paper includes as much description as it can as a service to readers. Often, that includes reprinting dialogue between the suspect and the victim. Lewis says the only thing he censors is obscenities. He usually leaves in racial epithets because "it tends to show the flavor of what's going on."

Perhaps understandably, some of the Independent's reporters resent the crime log's popularity.

Former City Editor Christopher Noxon addressed this topic in an opinion piece earlier this year, describing the blotter as "sometimes scary, sometimes shocking and lots of times oddly funny."

"Often times," he groused good-naturedly, "the blotter is better than anything we writers come up with."

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