Armed only with walkie-talkies and looking spiffy in black uniforms emblazoned with Koreatown Security Patrol in big white letters, nine volunteers from the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles made their debut on Saturday night.
They rode in three shiny dark patrol cars through well-lighted boulevards and almost black side streets, from Vermont and Western avenues on the east and west to Beverly and Olympic boulevards on the north and south. Along the way, the volunteers -- mostly middle-aged businessmen -- made numerous stops at bars, convenience stores and 24-hour restaurants to introduce themselves to proprietors and their customers, and to listen to their concerns.
"We're from the Korean federation," they said in Korean, with a polite bow. "We're beginning our patrol tonight in an effort to make Koreatown safer."
A series of high-profile slayings in the community over the last year -- including the shooting deaths of three people at a Koreatown restaurant bar last month -- has heightened concern among local residents and business owners, prompting the federation to start the volunteer program, staffed by board members and their relatives.
Although crime is down overall in Koreatown, according to police, there was a jump in homicides and rapes this year over 2005. As of October, homicides had increased from 15 to 21 and rapes from 30 to 44.
Police Chief William J. Bratton sees the volunteer patrol as a "good thing." Spokesman Jason Lee said the chief "asks that they be our ears and eyes" but cautions that they not be vigilantes. Lee says the chief wants them to call police when they see any suspicious activity.
Lee, a 20-year department veteran who grew up in Koreatown, has said that many eateries and bars stay open into the early morning hours, and though that is good for business, it has the potential to attract the wrong element.
"When there's alcohol being consumed late into the night, it can be a combustible combination," he said.
Koreatown was relatively quiet Saturday because it was Thanksgiving weekend; there were no incidents that required the volunteer patrol to follow up with police. Still, one car carrying three volunteers remained on duty until 2 a.m., the closing time for bars and clubs. With the exception of a quick midnight dinner break -- all ordered a bowl of beef brisket stew, rice and kimchi -- they worked straight through.
Most people -- business owners and customers -- said they were glad to see them.
"It's good that the federation is doing this," said Shawn Park as he smoked outside Dansung-sa, a bar at a mini-mall at the corner of 6th and Berendo streets. "I am always concerned about safety around here," Park said, before he and his party maneuvered out of the crowded parking lot in a BMW.
An employee at Dansung-sa, who came out to check on the commotion stirred up by the patrol cars, was more skeptical, fearing that the sight of patrol cars could scare customers away. "They might think something is happening," he said.
The patrol began 15 minutes behind schedule, at 10:15 p.m., from the federation headquarters in the 900 block of Western Avenue, near Olympic Boulevard.
A Times photographer and a reporter rode along in a patrol car with Gab Jea Cho, head of the federation's public safety committee, and Chris Moon Key Nam, federation president.
Several cars carried camera crews from Korean-language broadcast stations. The project, weeks in planning, has generated much discussion in the local Korean media.
Thus far, the federation has received more than $50,000 in donations and pledges, said Mark Yoon, a vice chairman of the federation.
"We are definitely not going around asking people for money," he said. "But businesspeople and board members have come forward on their own," he said. One member donated $10,000. Another is paying for communication equipment.
On the first night of patrol, the plan was to cover mini-malls and nightspots in known problem areas and to locate areas that needed more streetlights.
From Western and Olympic, the team drove east to Vermont Avenue, north to Beverly, and paused briefly at Beverly and Normandie Avenue to note a traffic accident. But, hearing police sirens, they proceeded to their first stop -- a mini-mall at Beverly near Oxford.
A lone security guard named Jonathan worked the mall, standing between Napole Club and Toad House.
"It's good," Jonathan said, when told of the patrol's goal. "It's good to have extra help," he said.
Team members went door to door to explain their mission.
Federation board member Chol Mo Kang cited three "major problem spots": Alexandria Plaza at 6th and Alexandria Avenue, Chapman Plaza across the street, and the Brown Derby Plaza at Alexandria and Wilshire Boulevard.
Dong Hyun Park, owner of PC Comics at Alexandria Plaza, was delighted to see the team from the federation.
"Security is nonexistent around here," Park said. "We have homeless people coming -- demanding money at all hours."
But Park said it's going to take a sustained effort and cooperation from all segments of the Koreatown business community to make the area safer.
One immediate challenge is figuring out where to stop in the sprawling Koreatown, with its many blocks of restaurants and drinking establishments, some of which are so dark that it's hard to tell from the street whether they are even open. For example, shortly before 2 a.m. Sunday, one patrol car stopped at a mini-mall with a karaoke room popular with the younger set.
From the outside, Ting-ga Ting-ga, near Harvard and Olympic, appeared to be closed, until Yoon heard music coming from inside.
When his group walked up a flight of stairs and ventured inside, they found the place throbbing with loud music.
When Yoon introduced himself, an attendant went inside to get his boss.
"This place is busy," Yoon said.
"We're usually busier," said the manager. "This being a holiday weekend, a lot of customers are taking time off."
"I can't believe the place stays open until 4 a.m.," Yoon said, as he left the premises. "When do these people study or sleep?"
The federation's patrol team will be back on Friday and Saturday, working from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., Yoon said. Beginning Dec. 13, the team plans to cover Mondays and Wednesdays as well.
"We are concerned about the holiday season," Yoon said.