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At Odds Over Best Way to Combat Gang Crime : * Law enforcement: Some in Hollywood want a separate anti-gang unit there. But police officials say their centralized approach works better.

February 23, 1992|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOLLYWOOD — Concerned about an escalation in gang activity and violence, many Hollywood residents want their own specialized anti-gang police unit.

But the Los Angeles Police Department, which has taken the matter under advisement, said that a new unit is unnecessary and that the current gang-fighting strategies are effective.

For several months, a coalition of neighborhood watch groups has been pushing for a specialized patrol unit. The group sent its request recently with a 749-signature petition to the Police Department and Mayor Tom Bradley.

The group proposes dismantling Westside CRASH, the areawide Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums anti-gang unit, so that each of the four police divisions in the area can have its own specialized unit, said Virginia Charon, a founder of the Hollywood Sentinels neighborhood group and the main sponsor of the petition.

The Police Department's three other bureaus--South, Central and Valley--have split up their anti-gang units so that each division can have its own team.

A local unit would allow police in Hollywood to better acquaint themselves with the gang activities and gang members there, and to better address the myriad problems, including drug dealing, violence and murder, said Charon and Robert Burton, co-chairman of the United Streets of Hollywood coalition.

"We, the residents of Hollywood, feel like prisoners in our own homes," the petition reads. "We, law-abiding citizens, cannot move and travel freely through our neighborhoods because the gangs have taken over. Our lives are in danger."

In its petition, the coalition said Hollywood needs more police officers in any case, and a good place to start would be to decentralize the Westside CRASH unit.

"No 'Crash Unit' can come in . . . once every week or so and solve Hollywood's problems," the petition maintains. "Our gangs are mobile, and fighting over borders and drug dealing locations. . . . Please give us our own gang task force immediately."

The Westside police brass met with community leaders during the past two weeks and told them that the centralized CRASH unit is working just fine.

Deputy Chief Glenn Levant said the West bureau is the only one of the four bureaus in the city to register a decrease in gang-motivated crime in 1991. And it was "a significant decrease, 14%," he said.

By comparison, Levant said, the San Fernando Valley bureau reported an increase in gang-motivated crimes of 57%; the South bureau, 16%, and Central, 6%, Levant said.

"By any measurable standard, we are doing it the best way," Levant said. "The numbers speak."

In addition, the Westside CRASH unit's crime-solving rate is among the best in the city, if not the best, according to Levant and Lt. Brad Merritt, the unit's commanding officer.

They said Westside CRASH detectives have about a 90% conviction rate for gang-motivated homicides, the highest rate in the city. And last year, Merritt said, his staff investigated 1,184 gang-related crimes areawide and achieved what he called a "phenomenal" 93% clearance rate, which means that a suspect was identified and arrested.

There are other reasons besides performance to keep the CRASH unit together, police officials said.

CRASH works best as an areawide unit because gang members don't pay attention to police divisional boundaries, they said. And the areawide unit has recognized the serious escalation in gang activity in Hollywood in recent years, to the point where its members now spend as much as 80% of their time in the area.

Because some officers are on loan elsewhere due to departmentwide staffing shortages, the CRASH unit has only 22 uniformed officers and three sergeants to cover the entire 122 square miles in the Hollywood, Wilshire, West Los Angeles and Pacific divisions, Merritt said.

Even so, half of that staff is working Hollywood four out of five nights a week, and the entire unit spent almost every Friday and Saturday night along Hollywood and Sunset boulevards last year, he said, to fight the gang-related cruising problem.

"If you split it up," Levant said, "you wouldn't have sufficient numbers of people to deal with the problem. Now, when we have a problem, we can mobilize the entire unit and respond.

"I'd be perfectly satisfied to have a decentralized CRASH unit if it had enough officers to deal with the problems," Levant continued. "But the personnel just aren't available."

Levant said the department is "not locked into one organizational mode" and that it could decentralize the CRASH unit sometime in the future if more personnel are available or if it appears that such a move would help fight crime.

At a Feb. 11 community meeting, Hollywood commanding officer Capt. John L. Higgins seemed to persuade many petitioners "that the way things are currently configured is the best way to go," he said.

Burton, for one, said police "gave a pretty convincing argument," but that he still wants a special CRASH unit for Hollywood or better communication with the existing unit.

Charon, however, plans to continue the fight, saying she's not persuaded by the Westside LAPD leadership's arguments. "Everyone we have talked to that has their own CRASH unit is very, very happy that way," she said. "I think every police station should have their own."

Charon, 72, said she is especially upset that Mayor Bradley has not responded to the petition, even after she sent him a copy by registered mail. She said a Bradley aide, Lily Lee, promised to attend the Feb. 11 meeting, but never showed up. Bradley spokeswoman Valle Bunting said that Lee was having surgery Feb. 11 and that the mayor's office has been in contact with the community to express its support for the continued centralization of the CRASH unit.

Charon said she plans to write another letter to Bradley, to change his mind. "And the public is going to continue to fight for (the unit)," she said, "because we need it."

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