Canoga Park got a new "police station" Monday, one aimed specifically at reaching those Latinos who might not otherwise seek help.
Housed in an old school building and manned by a personable, Spanish-speaking officer named Fred Romero, the police station is meant to be non-intimidating. Police officers say many Latino crime victims have regarded them warily because of cultural barriers and, in some cases, fears of deportation.
For victims of bunco crimes, fraud or civil disputes, who need help but don't feel comfortable with English, the converted office at the Guadalupe Center on Hart Street offers a relaxed alternative to more conventional police stations.
The storefront office, open Mondays from 2 to 5 p.m., is a three-month experiment that police officials and community leaders hope will provide a better rapport between police and Latinos.
If the program is successful, police officials said, they plan to expand the days and hours of operation.
Won't Ask INS Status
At a press conference Monday marking the opening of "Project Amigo," as the program is called, Police Capt. Bayan Lewis said visitors will not be questioned about their status with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"We're more concerned with helping people who have been victims of a crime," Lewis said.
In recent years, similar storefront police "stations" in Chinatown, Koreatown and Boyle Heights have used officers who speak the languages and gain the trust of the ethnic communities they serve, according to a police spokesman.
In fact, the Boyle Heights program, called Operation Swindlers, now draws 15% to 20% of its visitors from the San Fernando Valley, said Officer Sam Sanchez, one of three policemen assigned to the program.
Although Project Amigo officials said they were unaware that Valley-area Latinos have been traveling to Boyle Heights to use the program, they said they expect the Canoga Park storefront to soon draw its own customers from as far away as Pacoima and San Fernando.
Project Amigo is the second step in as many years that police have taken to combat crime and foster trust in the Latino community in Canoga Park.
Last year, uniformed officer Bob Watson began walking a beat through the area's business and residential districts.
"At first, little kids would turn and run back into their houses; people would turn away," Watson said, recalling his first weeks on the beat.
"Now, they acknowledge my presence by smiling or waving. Kids come up and talk to me."
Romero, a 19-year police veteran who has worked in the West Valley for five years, said he had heard "through the grapevine" that at least two customers were already waiting to talk to him Monday afternoon.
If callers don't reach Romero during his office hours, an operator records their names and telephone numbers on a sheet, and Romero returns the calls as soon as possible. The Canoga Park number is 340-2051.
3 Days of Preparation
In preparing for his new role, Romero spent three days working with officers from Operation Swindlers in Boyle Heights and becoming familiar with bunco schemes that have been perpetrated on Latino residents in Los Angeles.
Besides handling criminal reports, Romero said, Project Amigo will offer referrals to agencies that can provide help in landlord-tenant disputes, domestic quarrels and many other civil problems.
Through word of mouth, flyers distributed in local schools and signs posted at churches and community centers, the organizers of Project Amigo hope to coax members of the Latino community into taking their problems to the police. Non-Latinos are also welcome, Romero said.
The project was created with the help of the West Valley Police Division, which supplied the manpower, and the Guadalupe Center, a community social service agency, which donated the office space.
Los Angeles Councilwoman Joy Picus, who represents Canoga Park, worked with the Guadalupe Center to obtain use of the office.