Torrance's Del Amo Fashion Center, the largest, single enclosed shopping mall in the nation, presents a glossy image of serene shopping as its 342 shops, department stores and restaurants ring up more than $400 million in retail trade each year.
But a seamier side lies beneath the carefully cultivated appearance of the mall.
Its vast parking lots, arcades, shopping galleries, walkways and restaurants are drawing auto thieves, purse-snatchers and youthful "mall rats" with a penchant for getting into trouble, say mall officials and Torrance police.
It is the kind of trouble that mall officials fear--the kind that ruins the upscale ambiance of their retail center and could drive away customers.
The police say that the mall accounts for almost 20% of the major crimes reported in the city. Although crime there consists almost entirely of nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting, the potential for violence, especially related to youth gangs, is troubling.
"It has gotten pretty heavy," said Misi Misa, 22, a Torrance resident and mall store employee who once was a mall rat and former member of the South Bay's Samoan Army gang.
"I used to come here a lot. About a month ago, I almost got jumped by some Crip gang from San Pedro, the Second Street Mob," Misa said.
To prevent the situation from getting worse, the City Council on Tuesday approved a storefront police substation at the mall, adding a fourth officer to the shopping center detail during the holiday shopping crush. In addition, the Police Department will step up coverage by police reserve officers and make efforts to improve admittedly poor coordination among police and three private security forces operating at the mall.
The Torrance Co., which owns the mall, has agreed to pay $150,000, or 68%, of the salaries of the three officers who will work out of the storefront station. In addition, the mall company is providing the space without rent and stocking it with office equipment worth $15,560. The city receives 1% of the malls sales through sales tax, roughly $4 million this year.
Torrance Co. President James Jones said Wednesday he is enthusiastic about the police presence in the storefront, adding that police "have been super" in recent weeks in responding to mall concerns about security.
A clause in a five-year agreement between the city and the Torrance Co. stipulates that the officers subsidized by the mall work solely for the Police Department and that mall officials have no say in their duties.
The move to put the existing three-officer shopping center detail in a storefront comes more than a year after Jones wrote city officials about a wave of auto thefts from the mall parking lots.
"We need the presence of the city's Police Department at Del Amo to help us preserve our image and the revenue directed to the city," Jones wrote city officials in August, 1986.
Thirty-four cars had been stolen from the mall that August--more than one a day. During the first six months of this year, 141 cars were stolen. The pace has improved since police launched a crackdown this summer.
'Provide a Safe Place'
Auto theft is the most serious crime problem at the mall. Only theft--generally shoplifting--is more common, and that is not the type of crime that chases away customers.
Police officials surveyed police presence at the Glendale Galleria, the Hawthorne Mall, the South Coast Plaza in Orange County and found that all had some sort of storefront operation and a higher concentration of police officers.
"All three of these cities' shopping areas combined are smaller than just the Del Amo Fashion Center alone and yet they have a combined staff of 10 officers, three sergeants and a services officer," Police Chief Donald Nash wrote in a recent report to the city manager.
Nash said the Del Amo mall and Torrance's other shopping areas "have expanded their operations while the level of police service has expanded only minimally. In an effort to provide a safe place for citizens to shop, the Police Department must adjust its level of service to the shopping areas by adding additional personnel and equipment."
Torrance began a two-member shopping center detail in 1984 to cover Del Amo, the Old Towne Plaza, the Rolling Hills Shopping Center and the downtown business district. On June 30, the department added a third officer.
A storefront operation, Nash said, will permit quicker reaction, establish a higher profile for the police at the mall, assist store and mall security guards making arrests and provide a place for community outreach on crime prevention and police recruiting. Some parts of the storefront operation may be handled by Police Explorer Scouts, Neighborhood Watch members and senior citizen volunteers.
Hone said that the facility will have two holding areas for people who are arrested and that misdemeanor arrests at the mall--many for shoplifting--will be handled entirely at the storefront substation.