Altadena Junction: The lingering of old ghosts

We don’t have our own police force. As an unincorporated area, we are served by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Furthermore, we’re under the rule of the Crescenta Valley sheriff’s station. This means that our local captain answers to a commander at Crescenta Valley and 911 calls for service are routed there first.

Still, most residents are very supportive of law enforcement: There’s a Sheriff’s Support Group that raises funds for equipment, a community advisory committee, a clergy council, a volunteer mounted patrol and a Volunteers on Patrol program of unarmed civilians who act as extra eyes and ears for the deputies.

The captain’s chair in Altadena is usually given to a sheriff’s officer with 30 years under his belt, a place to mark the last three years until retirement. As a result, our captains don’t last very long, and the quality of their management tends to vary.

We seem to have lucked out this time: Capt. Steven McLean took the helm in April 2010, and if you don’t see him around, you don’t get out enough. He turns up at nearly every large community gathering and even some neighborhood events. He’s not afraid to do a turn in the dunk tank if called upon. Even though he’s at a point in his career when he can put his feet up a bit, you still see him taking patrol shifts.

He was named one of the top captains by the rank-and-file deputies this summer, the only first-year captain to be ranked among the top 10.

He’s also getting results: Altadena had a major problem with burglaries in 2009 and 2010. Deputies said gangbangers figured that, rather than deal drugs or engage in some other illegal activity, it was an easier score to break into an empty house and take whatever they could pack out quickly. A pattern was established: knock on the front door, and if nobody answers, go into the backyard, break in and take whatever is easily turned into money — jewelry, laptops, iPods, purses.

McLean made the burglary wave a priority, putting more resources on it and encouraging local neighborhood watch groups to keep an eye out for people who just don’t belong. As of September, the latest month for which statistics are available, the year-to-date figure for burglaries was down by one third. Other crimes score similarly, with grand theft auto down by 40.7%.

But it hasn’t been an easy skate in Altadena. There are periodic complaints about deputies hassling drivers on the west side of town. A controversial arrest last year allegedly resulted in a shirtless suspect being burned by a hot car hood. A community meeting shortly after that event turned vocal and contentious.

At the same time, though, some complain that there isn’t enough enforcement, particularly on the west side. At a meeting this week, residents who live around Lincoln Avenue complained of an indifferent response to their calls about young men wildly firing guns last weekend. When a deputy finally arrived, they said, he didn’t bother to interview witnesses or take a report.

Talk to some of the older residents, particularly if they’re African American and lived through the 1970s, and they’ll tell you stories about encounters with deputies that would be tough to forget. It seems that, whenever there’s controversy, these wounds are easily re-opened. One of the elements that make Altadena’s relationship with the deputies so complex is that, even though we’re facing new law enforcement challenges and an entirely different and diverse generation of officers, those old ghosts linger.

Timothy Rutt is the publisher and editor of Altadenablog.com. Altadena Junction appears weekly in the Sunday Valley Sun.

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