Walking slowly through a dark corridor in a dingy-looking hotel in downtown Long Beach, police Officer Raul Granby gently pushed in a door and asked: "Are you people supposed to be here?"
"Yes, sir," a man quickly responded.
Outside the dilapidated hotel on Third Street, Officer Steve Strichart stopped a shabbily dressed man and ran a warrants check on him.
Nearby, two plainclothes officers walked past a disheveled-looking woman. Officer Lance Livingston, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, conspicuously counted $1 bills in front of her.
"She asked for 50 cents and then got greedy and asked for a buck and a quarter," Livingston said.
They arrested her for panhandling.
Livingston, his partner, Hernando Torres, and three uniformed officers were out to clean up the downtown. They walked, drove and biked through streets, hotels, bars, stores, parks, Long Beach Plaza and the Promenade, stopping known criminals and suspicious-looking loiterers.
They belong to a new task force whose goal, said Sgt. Richard Wood, is "to make this a desirable place."
That requires getting rid of bums, drunks, panhandlers, and thieves by making it uncomfortable for them to hang out downtown, Wood said.
Retailers and people who shop or eat downtown were enthusiastic about the task force, which began work Monday. But the Long Beach chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which recently complained of police misconduct toward blacks, charged that the program opens the door to harassment.
"People are coming to us with complaints. Many times they are stopped for no reason whatsoever," said Joseph Kennerson, NAACP chapter president. "I don't think someone should be pulled over unless the police have a reason."
Sgt. Wood said the police do have reasons.
Bathing in Fountain
Sometimes they are obvious. On Tuesday, for example, Livingston and Torres found a fully dressed woman bathing in the Amphitheater fountain.
A bar of soap in hand, the woman stepped out of the fountain after the two undercover officers showed their badges and asked her what she was doing.
"Cleaning up and having a good time," she said. "I thought that's what the park was for."
But the municipal code prohibits bathing or swimming in public fountains, the woman was told. Surprised, she tucked her soap and baby powder back into her purse.
"Can I see your ID again?" she asked. "How come you're dressed like that?"
Torres again showed her his badge. Livingston, carrying a soft-drink bottle in a paper bag, asked: "Don't we look like cops to you?"
"You act like it," she said.
Taken to Jail
Because the woman had no identification, Torres and Livingston could not issue a citation, so they handcuffed her and took her to Long Beach Jail.
In other cases, the reasons may not be obvious. Officers say they rely on their training and instincts to determine if there is reasonable cause to stop someone.
Patrolling Long Beach Plaza on Wednesday, for example, officers found a young couple sitting on a bench. Both had tattoos on their arms. The man wore torn jeans and carried a black leather jacket with a skull-and-crossbones emblem.
Police asked Michelle Lester, 18, and Sean Delaney, 21, what they were doing. They said they had come to shop and eat lunch.
Searching Delaney's jacket, Granby found a brass knuckle. Delaney said it was used as a key chain. Strichart told him: "I've been a cop too long to have someone tell me this is a key chain."
In a pocket, police found two small plastic bags. One held a locket and the other a flat piece of gold.
"You are in possession of some valuable gold," Wood said. He asked where Delaney had gotten it. Delaney said a friend had given it to him; it was from Vietnam, and he was going to have the items appraised at a jewelry shop.
The officers said it was "highly suspicious" for the couple to have expensive jewelry. They said they would take the locket and gold to the police station for a burglary check. If, after 72 hours, the jewelry had not been determined to be stolen property, the couple could have it back.
"OK, that's no problem," Delaney told police. "I can see your point."
Then the officers got word by walkie-talkie that an arrest warrant was out on Delaney. He owed $171 on a traffic violation.
"I don't believe this," Delaney said, shaking his head as the officers handcuffed him and took him to jail.
Outside the mall, Lester, his girlfriend, said the police weren't "very fair."
"A lot of cops do stop us because we're punk. We look suspicious," she said. "We just came to eat lunch."
Later, Wood said police had stopped the couple because "we wanted to question (them) for possibly loitering. They were sitting there, kind of shabbily dressed. Not that people don't have the right to sit there shabbily dressed. But (they were people) we wanted to talk to, with the emphasis of cleaning up the mall and ridding it of people who have no business being there."