LAPD Tests New Policing Strategy

Times Staff Writers

As the symbolic gateway to Los Angeles, Hollywood Boulevard is ground zero in the new battle against crime and urban blight.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has chosen the area as a proving ground for his new policing strategy, which holds that maintaining public order is at least as important as solving crimes and that attacking low-level offenses can reduce fear and prevent more serious offenses.

Bratton selected the Hollywood strip, MacArthur Park and downtown's skid row as his first targets. Step by step, the Los Angeles Police Department has been introducing the "broken windows" system he used as New York's top police officer.

Even before the program is fully geared up, the LAPD reports crime has begun to drop, following the pattern in New York, which experienced double-digit declines on Bratton's watch.

In Los Angeles, Bratton has not picked easy proving grounds. Hollywood has two-thirds of all prostitution arrests in the city. Skid row is home to the largest concentration of homeless and is in the LAPD division that logged more drug sales arrests than any other last year. The city already has spent millions trying to clean up MacArthur Park, in the middle of a poor, overcrowded, crime-plagued neighborhood.

"Parks are essential to the quality of life in a city," Bratton said. "If the small things are left undeterred, they turn into big things. So the homeless take over a portion of the park. Drug dealers follow. Drug dealers beget violence. It then begins to affect the whole business area and businesses begin to die."

A broken window signals that no one cares, the theory goes. Graffiti, vandalism and prostitution foster fear, and more serious crime follows.

"What people see every day generates so much of their fear. Graffiti, homelessness and drug dealers. That's what drives people out of the cities," Bratton said. "It's all about quality-of-life issues."

The LAPD is developing precise plans for controlling graffiti, public drinking, prostitution and street drug sales. Some of the plans require legislation and will not be complete until spring. But police believe they have begun to make progress, citing a crime drop in the park and other improvements.

In a series of interviews, Bratton and subordinates offered some hints of what may still come: the possibility of locking the park after dark, of gathering the homeless within skid row to better control them at night and a new offensive against the customers of prostitutes in Hollywood.

In New York, Bratton cracked down on people who wiped windshields without invitation, then asked for money, when drivers stopped at red lights.

"The squeegee pests were symbols of fear and lack of police control and disorder," he said. "The equivalent in downtown is begging. Some of it's benign. But it raises the degree of discomfort for the average person."

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Along Hollywood Boulevard, Bratton's plans have encountered a receptive audience.

"Chief Bratton's approach makes sense," said Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Entertainment District, a business improvement group. "Anyone who has seen the changes in areas where quality-of-life crimes have been the focus knows that."

Hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been invested in development of the Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex, in the new Kodak Theatre and the revival of landmarks such as the Egyptian Theatre.

But the area is still a magnet for the homeless, and narcotics sales are still a major concern.

At night and sometimes during the day, dealers and their lookouts can be seen working on corners, such as Cahuenga and Hollywood boulevards. Bratton, who lives nearby, frequently visits crime scenes there.

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents part of Hollywood, said drug dealers, prostitution and gang activity are the main problems, and Bratton is moving in the right direction with foot beats and other forms of proactive policing.

"We have the right formula, but we need people," Garcetti said.

LAPD Capt. Michael Downing is Bratton's point man in the Hollywood cleanup effort, the man whose job it is to make sure things don't go wrong. The kind of risk-taker and innovator whom Bratton encourages, Downing, as commander of the Hollywood Division, launched Operation Restore Hollywood shortly before Christmas.

Narcotics and gang officers joined with a county interagency anti-drug task force, parole officers and a neighborhood prosecutor to pursue the pushers, many of whom work for the notorious 18th Street gang.

Downing was acting on the chief's philosophy: Bust a drug dealer or snag a tagger and you also may catch a killer. Officers believe they have affected more than drug sales. "Robberies are down 60%," Downing said.

Officers now regularly check up on parolees by looking for their names on hotel registers, something not done before.

And street prostitutes on Sunset Boulevard also are in the sights of police. A new ordinance lets the LAPD seize and sell vehicles used by motorists while soliciting.

"If you come to Hollywood to buy drugs, pick up a prostitute or race your car, we'll take you off your wheels and put you on your heels," Downing said.

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The MacArthur Park neighborhood is another gateway: The two-square-block park, with its picturesque boat lake, sits in a neighborhood that has become home to many recent immigrants from Central America.

The city pumped $2 million into the park, a face lift that produced a refurbished playground and other improvements. But solicitors still hawk fake IDs, drug dealers lounge beneath the shade of the palm trees and gang graffiti mar trees. Prostitutes roam the park, and light fixtures have been vandalized.

Officer Alex Bautista can point to each of the corners of the park, named for World War II and Korean War leader Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and identify the gang that claims it.

Police are struggling to enforce an after-dark curfew. At Bratton's suggestion, bike patrols are cycling through the park, and a special squad car has been assigned there. Court orders have been issued banning individuals from the park.

A platoon from the elite Metropolitan Division patrols the park daily, concentrating on quality-of-life crimes. The effort has produced a 50% decrease in crime in the last two months, said Capt. Douglas S. Shur. The LAPD declined to provide more details on that decline.

A night curfew on the homeless was enforced in New York's Central Park during Bratton's tenure, said Bill Bayer, the retired officer who oversaw policing there. But police also helped organize classes and events during the day for the homeless.

When muggers preyed on members of the gay community, Bayer said, he enlisted gay activists to form a watchdog group. The result was a significant drop in assaults and other crimes, he said.

"Fill the park with activities, a business improvement district around it. The police cannot do it alone," said George Kelling, the criminologist and co-author of the groundbreaking 1982 essay "Broken Windows," published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which popularized the approach to policing that Bratton has embraced.

Kelling, now a consultant for Bratton, said some residents and merchants have asked for a fence around the 32-acre park.

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Nowhere in New York, Bratton said, was the task as daunting as he faces at skid row.

While New York's homeless population was mostly in the subways, in Los Angeles pup tents, blankets and cardboard boxes pack downtown sidewalks after dark. As many as 5,000 people live on the 50 square blocks that are just minutes from City Hall.

For a generation, the city's homeless -- many with mental illnesses and addictions -- have been concentrated in skid row rather than diffused, as in New York, Bratton said.

The city needs more housing, Bratton acknowledged, but the police are paid to control behavior.

"You don't focus on the condition of homelessness," Bratton said, "but on the behavior that is illegal or abhorrent, or if it is not illegal, it's somewhat offensive to normal sensibilities."

To that end, although they were planned before Bratton took office, the new chief embraced two massive sweeps of skid row in November. Scores of officers from the LAPD's Central Bureau worked with federal, state and county officers in the operation.

An analysis of the resulting 185 arrests shows that violent, dangerous criminals were taken off the streets. Those arrested included parole violators and fugitives, as well as convicts with multiple offenses such as rape, incest, armed robbery, burglary and assault.

A Times analysis shows that parole violators made up most of the arrests, a majority of which were of people who had been convicted of drug offenses. In addition to the 185 arrested, 100 people were issued citations, mostly for minor infractions.

One of those captured had been convicted of raping a homeless woman in a skid row hotel room. That arrest highlights the fact that most of the victims of skid row violence are those who live there, police said.

In 2002, aggravated assaults in the neighborhood jumped from 763 to 871.

The LAPD is seeking new legal tools to deal with the problems of aggressive panhandling, camping on sidewalks and public defecation.

"We cannot have a tent city in public spaces," said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., an association of downtown businesses. Schatz said encampments of the homeless are not tolerated anywhere else in Los Angeles.

Opponents say that, until a city can guarantee housing for all, criminalizing simple acts of survival would be immoral.

"I'm all for getting crime off the street ... but putting homeless people in jail is not the answer," said Mark Casanova, executive director of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, a downtown nonprofit that offers people shelter, education and substance abuse treatment. "It appears that Bratton is acting on behalf of businesses."

In May, the City Council approved $2.4 billion for redevelopment projects across downtown, designed to spark a revival by providing subsidies to commercial and residential real estate developers.

"Cleaning up skid row won't just benefit developers, it would benefit the entire community," said Kelling, the criminologist. "A street culture has developed there where almost anything goes. It is not good for anyone, including those economically deprived.

"The high moral ground doesn't rest with those who think these people should be encamped on the sidewalks."

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Some academics and policing experts are skeptical that Bratton can repeat the New York experience on the West Coast.

Some argue that the economy and the cyclical nature of crime deserve just as much credit for the Big Apple's success. Others say that even the weather conspires against him: mild weather, compared with harsh winters, means the homeless are more resistant to placement in shelters.

James Q. Wilson, the emeritus professor at UCLA who originated the "Broken Windows" strategy, said looming in the background is the real problem facing the LAPD: a lack of resources, with no relief in sight, given the local and state budget crises.

"I think it will affect how people feel about their neighborhood for the better. If you can prove that a strategy works in these places," Wilson said, "then maybe the politicians will come up with money" to make real improvements.

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