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War Brings a Bit of Peace to Southland : Law enforcement: Police in Los Angeles County report a marked decrease in incidents since outbreak of combat in the Persian Gulf. 'Everyone was inside watching the news,' one officer says.

January 23, 1991|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A film crew from "Rescue 911," a weekly TV series featuring footage of real-life emergencies, followed Los Angeles police officers for four nights last week with lights on and camera rolling.

But after tedious vigils at the Hollywood and Van Nuys divisions, waiting for a shoot-out or high-drama hostage call, they were forced to pack up with only a few clips of less than newsworthy action.

"It was as though--to use an old cliche--crime was on a holiday," said Bob Reid, one of the directors of the CBS series. "We couldn't believe how slow it was. Nobody was calling the police for anything."

In the week since war broke out in the Persian Gulf, law enforcement agencies throughout Los Angeles County have reported a marked decrease in crime--an indication, some officers say, that would-be criminals and their potential victims may have simply stayed home to watch events unfold overseas.

"When the war first started, we noticed how quiet it got," said Pasadena Police Sgt. Leon Olson. "We figured everyone was inside watching the news. I know we were watching ourselves."

Compton police, who last year responded to an average of 6.5 murders a month, have not been called to a homicide since Jan. 15.

Sheriff's deputies at the Industry station, an area where rival gangs have been active of late, said the only death last weekend came when a trucker from South Dakota was crushed by her own runaway cab.

And from Jan. 16 to 21, the coroner's office performed an average of 4.8 autopsies a day--still a large number--but well below last year's daily average of 6.4.

"My own personal opinion is that you have a great amount of interest in the situation overseas," said Compton Police Lt. Joseph Flores. "That's probably drawing in people who would normally be outside, maybe loitering or looking for trouble."

The Los Angeles Police Department's chief psychologist, Dr. Martin Reiser, sees the connection on an even deeper level. As people focus on the events in the Middle East, he said, they tend to minimize their own personal conflicts.

"People are identifying with what's going on over there very strongly on an emotional level," Reiser said. "This kind of war tends to unify feelings . . . the sense that we're all Americans in this . . . so we tend not to focus on our own aches and pains."

To be sure, crime is not on a permanent vacation. The Police Department's busiest divisions, such as Rampart and 77th Street, reported business as usual. Sheriff's investigators said there were four murders attributed to gang members over the weekend, bringing the gang-related total this year to 16--up from five at this time in 1990. And Tuesday in Pasadena, a driver was killed and his passenger wounded in what police said was possibly a gang-related shooting on the Foothill Freeway.

"I don't thing the people who commit the majority of our crimes here are too concerned with current events," said Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Santander. "Most gang members aren't aware of what's going on outside of a five-minute radius of their turf."

Still, officers talked of a generally shared sense that crime has slowed as the Persian Gulf has heated up. In Beverly Hills, never a hotbed of crime, police have reported only four burglaries since the beginning of the war.

"That's very unusual for us," said Beverly Hills Police Lt. Frank Salcido. "I suspect people are probably standing by the TV, keeping tabs on what's going on."

How long the respite will last is anyone's guess, though some peace activists are convinced that it won't be long.

"I can see the flip side to this already," said Jerry Rubin, director of the Alliance for Survival in Los Angeles, which has organized several anti-war protests.

"As we get inundated by all this war coverage, bombarding us electronically as we eat breakfast or sit on the bus, it helps to reinforce a more unpeaceful society," he said, "All that violence will eventually have to be vented."

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