Column: Do video cameras make you feel safe, or just show you how dangerous your neighborhood is?

A man standing outside beneath a sign for Washington Square
Darrell Preston is an operations manager of three restaurants in the Washington Square neighborhood of Venice Beach. Using a network of surveillance cameras set up by the Washington Square Business Improvement Group, Preston has been able to help police solve a number of serious crimes.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

The young woman was unconscious, near death, outside the bathrooms south of the Venice Pier. Her jaw was broken, and she was naked from the waist down. Abrasions on her heels indicated she’d been dragged across the parking lot, likely after being sexually assaulted.

How would police figure out who brutalized this woman?

Maybe the assault, which occurred on Sept. 8, 2020, was caught on some of the many surveillance cameras in the area, which is home to a dozen or more restaurants, coffee shops, bars and liquor stores?

Darrell Preston, operations manager for three nearby restaurants, took a look.

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

Several years ago, the merchants of Washington Square, the last block of Washington Boulevard before it gives way to the ocean and the Venice Pier, created a nonprofit group called the Washington Square Business Improvement Group. They wanted to keep the bustling south end of Oceanfront Walk clean and safe, with a particular interest in protecting their businesses, which have always been ripe targets for vandalism and theft.

“We kept getting hit,” said Preston, whose restaurants are the Whaler, the Pier House and Baja Cantina. “Law enforcement would say, ‘Who was it? What happened?’ All we could say was, ‘It was a white guy in a black car.’ ”

Not super helpful.

The merchants decided to pool their resources and install a network of surveillance cameras that would, presumably, help answer those questions.


“I was never under the impression that it would necessarily prevent crime,” Preston said. “Maybe it has helped, but how do you do the metrics on that?”

What surprised him was how the footage would ultimately help solve rapes, attempted murders and assorted other heinous crimes, and how many hours he would spend poring over video looking for awful events.

What surprised me was how much ugly behavior takes place in my neighborhood while I am asleep or otherwise unaware.

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I had no idea, until Preston showed me the video, that on Oct. 4, at 6:30 a.m., a naked man walked up to a woman standing in the pier parking lot next to her suitcase. I saw him push her about 10 yards, then shove her over a low wall onto the sand and stomp her. He was soon arrested. But less than two weeks later, on Oct. 16, according to Preston, someone who looked like the same man harassed customers at the Pier House’s outdoor seats in broad daylight. As staff tried to get him to leave, he was distracted by a young woman walking by and turned and slapped her butt before resuming his rant.

“I mean how many times can you call the cops on the same guy?” asks Preston.

Preston also showed me video of a fight last April that happened on a Sunday night outside Hinano Cafe. He had just fallen asleep after a long work shift, when he was awakened by police banging on his door seeking his help. Two brothers had been attacked by men who’d mistaken them for someone they’d had words with earlier in the bar. One of the brothers was sucker-punched. The other was stabbed in the face so hard his lingual nerve was severed and his jaw was broken in half. He was in serious condition. Using the video, police tracked down the assailant, who remains in jail awaiting trial.

Listen, Venice Beach has always attracted lost souls in need of help or intervention. Certainly, in the last few years, addiction, mental illness and a lack of shelter has hit crisis proportions. Rules about camping on the beach and living in RVs were suspended during the pandemic. Things felt chaotic, and in Venice, at least, many residents vocally, if unfairly, blamed Councilman Mike Bonin, who has been perceived by these critics as failing to balance the needs of unhoused people with residents and business owners.

The widespread unhappiness led to a failed recall campaign and his decision, ultimately, not to seek reelection. I thought for a long time that his designated successor, Erin Darling, would easily win Bonin’s seat next month. But now I’m not so sure. Darling’s rival, Traci Park, wants to expand the Los Angeles Police Department, while Darling calls for more mental health workers. And while Darling opposes the city’s recent anti-camping ordinance, Park supports it.

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In any case, this is not about unhoused people and our government’s shocking inability to find workable solutions. Unhoused people, after all, are far more likely to be victimized than people who can shut their doors and lock themselves in.

It’s more about a feeling of lawlessness that permeates the neighborhood, which also happens to be one of the state’s most important tourist destinations.

In the last few years, Clabe Hartley, owner of the Cow’s End, and Tariq “T” Ali, a security guard at the Arbor Collective skate shop a block away, have each lost a finger in fights with troublemakers they were trying to remove from their premises. Hartley’s finger was bitten off; Ali’s was too infected to save after he was cut with a broken bottle.

I have wrestled with the urge to install cameras at my place, and with the fear that cameras will just make me paranoid. Maybe it’s better not to know what’s going on out there?

Preston doesn’t have that luxury.

After police asked him to review surveillance video looking for clues to who might have assaulted the young woman near the Venice Pier, he spent many hours looking at footage, trying to piece together what happened. What he found was chilling, especially after he learned that her friends believed she was in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Between 5:30 p.m. and midnight, he saw her wandering around Washington Square and noticed that she appeared to be followed. “It was one person in particular, and then at least two or three other young males cruising on BMX bikes, doing figure eights behind her,” said Preston.

She was last seen on video at 4:15 a.m. Eventually, Preston found a clear picture of a man he presumed to be the “one person in particular.”

Two and a half weeks later, Los Angeles police arrested 24-year-old Kwan Dante Adams, whom they described as a “transient who frequents the area.” He has been charged with one count each of attempted murder and forcible rape, and is in jail awaiting trial.

Detectives, who worked hard on the case, might well have found the suspected assailant on their own. But without Preston’s video, prosecutors would be in the dark about how the crime unfolded.