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Lakewood Uses Decals to Scare Off Car Thieves


LAKEWOOD — This community is so crime-prevention minded that it dots its streets with Neighborhood Watch signs that warn, "Lakewood Looks Out For It's Own."

Now, it is looking out for its cars, too.

According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, auto thefts in Lakewood and surrounding areas went up 55% last year.

But Lakewood is taking the offensive. It is the first city in the county to begin an automobile decal program aimed at deterring thieves and alerting deputies to suspicious drivers.

Night owls need not apply. This designer decal program is for people who go to bed when Johnny Carson goes off the air and get up when Bryant Gumbel says, "Good morning." Most car thieves, sheriff's statistics show, do the opposite. They go to work when Carson signs off and to bed when Gumbel comes on.

The jaunty yellow and green decals will be put on cars of owners who agree to give sheriff's deputies automatic "probable cause" to stop the cars if they spot them on the road between 1 and 5 a.m.

"This is not for everybody," agreed Donald J. Waldie, Lakewood's public information officer. "Someone who works at (McDonnell) Douglas on the swing shift wouldn't want to be in the program."

Residents lucky enough to have garage space for their cars need not apply either. Two-thirds of all car thieves, sheriff's records show, prefer prey parked outdoors.

But, as Waldie points out, "In Lakewood, finding an empty garage is like finding a rosebush in the Sahara. Most people . . . have at least two cars or have their garages filled with other things."

Not Mayor Larry Van Nostran. He puts his car in his one-car garage every night. "But I have a Corvette," the mayor said.

Even if he did park his car outside overnight, Van Nostran said he probably would not get a decal. Too many night meetings, he said, ticking off a list of local and regional government committees. "Sometimes it's one o'clock before I even drive into Lakewood."

Known as Operation LAW (Lakewood Auto Watch), the decal program was unveiled outside City Hall on Thursday. The cars of 60 block captains--foot soldiers in Lakewood's Neighborhood Watch program--already sport decals. The city is using its block captain brigade (there are 400 captains citywide) to spread the word about the program.

The Automobile Club of Southern California has also enlisted in the effort to protect the approximately 50,000 cars owned by Lakewood residents. In January, the club will send letters telling its members about Operation LAW.

Residents desiring the free decals must call City Hall to make a Saturday appointment to visit the sheriff's station next door. A decal with a serial number on it will be placed in the lower left corner of a car's rear window.

In exchange, residents must sign a registration form giving sheriff's deputies the right to stop the car if they see it on the road in the wee hours of the morning. If car owners find themselves on the street then, they may be stopped and asked to show their identification.

Lakewood, like several cities in the area, contracts with the county for public safety services. The Sheriff's Department also is talking to other cities about adopting the program, Waldie said.

San Diego was the first city in the state to have an auto decal program, but it is too early to measure its effectiveness, said John Graham, the crime prevention specialist in charge of the San Diego effort. The program was started last April.

New York City, however, started a decal program in 1986, Graham said, and "their figures showed that your car had a 40% less chance of being stolen if you were in the program."

So far, 2,548 people in San Diego have decals on their cars. "Most of the people signing up are over the age of 55," Graham said. "They're not out driving their cars in the middle of the night."

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