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Police Scale Back Elysian Park Drills After Complaints

March 07, 1993|IRIS YOKOI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because of complaints from neighbors about a temporary police training center in Elysian Park, the Police Department will stop outdoor tear-gas exercises and will move noisy training involving sirens and helicopters.

The action resulted from a meeting between residents and Lt. Mike Hillman prompted by reports that youths playing basketball at Elysian Park Recreation Center became ill while police were holding drills in preparation for possible civil unrest.

Hillman told members of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park that chemicals will no longer be sprayed outside and that noisy training will be moved to more remote areas of Dodger Stadium's parking lot.

"We want to be good neighbors here," said Hillman, an Elysian Park native and coordinator of the police civil disorder training program. "We're guests here and are trying to make (the training) as unobtrusive as possible."

Training at the police academy in Elysian Park has long been a source of concern to area residents, and some have complained about noisy weapons. But the riot-response training that began in November has triggered a new set of calls from residents bothered by sirens and helicopter noise.

The event that led Sallie Neubauer, president of the Citizens Committee, to seek a meeting with Hillman was a Jan. 22 incident at the recreation center. According to Neubauer, eight young men playing basketball on the outdoor courts became nauseous from tear gas that apparently wafted over from the police training area.

Neither Neubauer nor recreation center staff would provide names of the victims, but they said the young men complained of irritated eyes and breathing problems around noon that day. None were hospitalized and they sought their own medical treatment, according to witnesses.

Hillman acknowledged that the tear-gas training, which was conducted on a hilltop across from the center, was to blame for the ballplayers' nausea. "I think it was pretty obvious," he said. He added that recreation center staff called police and that he immediately stopped the tear-gas spraying.

Now, non-chemical white smoke is used instead to simulate riot conditions, Hillman said. And when officers need to check the effectiveness of their protective gear and masks, the tear gas is sprayed inside a sealed metal shed, he said.

Hillman said he also moved the training involving patrol cars and helicopters to an area close to the Pasadena Freeway in response to noise complaints from neighbors.

Hillman told the residents that the riot training, which is conducted four days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., will conclude by June. So far, about 2,200 of the department's 7,000 officers have gone through the training, he said.

Hillman promised that once all the officers are trained, the temporary training facility set up on the hilltop, which is owned by Dodger Stadium and is normally used for auxiliary parking, will be dismantled and removed.

Neubauer said residents don't want to see the hilltop site become a permanent police training location and have asked police to provide details about future training. "To leave it so vague is very discomfoting to us," Neubauer said. "Things that are temporary have a way of becoming permanent."

Hillman said he will try to arrange a meeting for residents with police officials.

The residents also asked Hillman to stop having officers practice defense tactics on the grassy area next to the academy. That area includes a memorial grove of trees planted by residents in honor of deceased loved ones.

Hillman and his assistant, Sgt. Jim Cole, expressed surprise, saying they didn't know the area was a memorial grove. Hillman said he will seek another practice area and asked residents for suggestions. But residents said there are no alternative sites in Elysian Park.

"The whole police operation has become so large and intensive, and appropriately so," said Judith Jamison, a 72-year resident of the area. "There just isn't room for your expanded needs, and we're all for your needs. You just can't squeeze it all in this little space."

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