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Flak Over Downtown Security Guards

Times Staff Writers

The much-touted revitalization of downtown Los Angeles has brought luxury lofts and trendy restaurants to the city center along with a growing cadre of private security guards who do everything from patrol the streets to clean up trash.

Riding on bikes and in SUVs and armed with pepper spray, batons and sometimes handguns, the guards downtown now number about 100. Business and property owners who hired them consider the security force to be a key factor to downtown’s success by keeping a lid on shoplifting, littering and other petty crimes that were once common.

Downtown’s eight business improvement districts -- nonprofit groups made up of merchants and property owners -- pay $12 million annually in tax assessments for the patrols and other services. More such districts in the city are in the planning stages.

“All you have to do is walk down the street and you can see the change we’ve brought about,” said Carol Schatz, president of the Downtown Center Improvement District. “There’s not one person who could say the area hasn’t improved because of the BIDs.”

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But although businesses and many new residents praise the security officers, their tactics have come under fire from advocates for the homeless and illegal street vendors, who say the guards are taking the law into their own hands.

Several homeless people have filed suits against four downtown districts, claiming that the guards harassed them. And the Los Angeles Police Department is investigating allegations that security officers in the Fashion District extorted money from illegal street vendors.

Critics say the downtown improvement districts should receive greater government oversight, as is the case in New York.

“Public sidewalks are being patrolled by private security guards.... That’s scary,” said Alice Callaghan, an activist for homeless residents. “These guards are only answerable to private organizations.”

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The improvement district trend first swept the country during the 1980s and ‘90s, when cities struggled with blight and decay in their downtowns. But it wasn’t until 1994 that the districts came to Los Angeles, after the state Legislature passed a law allowing property owners to pay special taxes to fund nonprofit organizations to improve their areas.

“The Broadway district was in shambles,” said Estela Lopez, who created downtown’s first improvement district in 1994 under an organization called Miracle on Broadway. “The area had fallen into disrepair, and there wasn’t much the government could do.”

Trash cans overflowed, and businesses had trouble persuading customers that it was safe to shop on the street, Lopez said. The Broadway improvement district cleared the sidewalks and emptied the trash cans. Calls to police from merchants dropped 30% in the first year, she said.

As a whole, crime in the downtown area has decreased, mirroring a citywide trend. From 1993 to 2003, property and violent crimes fell 49% in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division, where most downtown improvement districts are located.

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The LAPD attributes the drop to a variety of reasons but says the improvement districts have contributed to the success.

“They provide another set of eyes and ears,” said Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell. “In the overall picture, we’re out there doing what we can with the resources we have. But having BID officers out there is a major advantage.”

In the last 10 years, the guards have become fixtures in the area. Chinatown’s security officers wear red uniforms, the Downtown Center guards wear purple, and the Fashion District’s force wears yellow.

In addition to providing security, the city’s 31 districts do everything from planting trees to generating snow for winter festivals. The Los Angeles Times is a member of the Downtown Center district.

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But with the improvements has come criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union and private lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit in 1999 against four downtown improvement districts on behalf of 12 homeless residents. The lawsuit alleged that district guards had beaten up and falsely imprisoned the homeless in an orchestrated effort to chase them from downtown.

Two of the districts settled the case out of court, agreeing not to photograph, interrogate, search or order homeless residents to move along. The other two districts’ cases are pending.

A year after the class-action suit was filed, a security guard for the Historic Core business improvement district said in a lawsuit that he was fired and then beaten by co-workers after complaining that co-workers were unnecessarily violent with people they encountered on the street. Guard Wilford Johnson was awarded a $595,000 settlement.

Since then, the Historic Core district has changed its name to the Historic Downtown District and now uses guards from the Downtown Center District.

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Last month, Los Angeles police officers searched the lockers of Fashion District security guards, looking for evidence that at least three guards had extorted $15 to $50 a day from illegal street vendors who paid in order to continue operating.

Since the LAPD investigation, the Fashion District improvement group has changed some policies and removed the three suspects from its ranks. The district’s director said he would replace all 24 guards in the coming months in a bid to boost the force’s credibility.

“I don’t know what else I can do to restore confidence from LAPD,” said director Kent Smith.

With guards being paid only modest wages, the temptation for misconduct is always there, said Mary Lou Dudas, head of the Hollywood Media improvement district.

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“That’s what some of these security officers are making -- $8 an hour,” she said. In the Fashion District case, “they just found a lucrative way to supplement their income.”

Still, Dudas and others running the improvement districts believe that the alleged extortion was an isolated incident and that the districts as a whole should not be blamed for a few bad apples.

Since the state’s improvement districts were created, local government and courts have added some restrictions. In the late 1990s, the Legislature passed a law requiring an election among property owners to establish business improvement districts. And in 2001, a state court of appeal ruled that the districts must open their board meetings to the public.

But the recent cases have some critics calling for more accountability.

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“I think people don’t have a clue how bad it’s getting,” said Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a nonprofit community center in downtown Los Angeles.

So far, most complaints have come from the homeless and street vendors, she said, “but people have to understand this is something that will ultimately affect them.... One day [the private security] is going to come to their door as well.”

The only government agency directly supervising the improvement districts is the city clerk’s office, which oversees their finances. The districts must submit annual and quarterly reports, and the city reserves the right to conduct audits.

But for the most part, the districts are run by supervising boards, which write their own bylaws. And in most cases the boards are made up entirely of property owners.

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In New York -- the only city with more business improvement districts than Los Angeles -- restrictions are tighter, as a result of similar problems between guards and homeless residents.

Each of New York’s 46 such districts must undergo an annual independent audit, said Rob Walsh, city commissioner of Small Business Services, which oversee the districts. New York’s improvement districts also automatically include as voting board members at least one commercial tenant, the city commissioner of Small Business Services, the city comptroller, the local councilman and the borough president.

Some Los Angeles districts, however, say that adding more oversight because of the Fashion District investigation would be an overreaction.

“If people are saying more accountability, then I say accountability to whom?” said Schatz of the Downtown Center District. “It’s not the city’s money; it’s the property owners’ money. If the city has done such a fine job in downtown, we wouldn’t have needed BIDs in the first place.”

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