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Not Your Typical Police Station : Community: Using seized drug money, officers are creating a neighborhood center offering youths recreation, support groups and help finding jobs.

July 18, 1993|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EL MONTE — Freddy, a scrawny heroin addict, is giggling at police officers.

He is slouched comfortably against a smoked-glass room divider at the new El Monte Police substation, as if he were at home. A few weeks earlier, Freddy's home was state prison, where he was serving time for robbery. (He won't give specifics or his last name.)

What's making Freddy laugh is the officers' antics. Officer Marty Penney is lobbing scrunched-up paper wads at him. Officer Ken Weldon walks by, and without breaking stride, playfully fastballs a bag of potato chips into Freddy's gut.

"The cops here are like kids," said Freddy, 27, who dropped by the station to find help for his drug problem. "They're fun to talk to. They're never talkin' nuthin' about the law. It's like, 'If you go this way, it's wrong. . . .' These guys are different than cops on the street. Cops on the street are idiotic."

But the very officers whom he praises are indeed cops on the street--with a twist.

In an apparently unique use of money seized from drug dealers, El Monte police opened a new substation that doubles as a sort of community center, offering young people jobs, homework help, weightlifting, support groups and two on-site counselors in private psychotherapy rooms. Officers will fix bikes, sign kids up for overnight camping trips or put them on a softball team. Volunteer tutors will help youngsters use the 15 donated computers, which are available for games or study programs.

For parents, there will be support groups, assorted classes and gang awareness seminars. Everyone is welcome, including non-residents, and the programs are free. The substation opened six weeks ago in Santa Fe Plaza, although some programs and activities will not get under way until September, when school starts. Some services are new, but the Police Department's community relations unit has run the jobs program, counseling service and sports leagues since the mid-1970s.

The substation is a place where youths can wander in to feel welcomed by the six full-time police officers, most of whom wear jeans and have their feet up on the desks. Officers go on daily patrol by car, foot or mountain bike. But rather than respond to routine radio calls, they search for truant students, talk to gang members and visit families of young troublemakers.

The aim is to take community policing into a new realm of social service.

"Our role is to help anyone in need and provide them with a chance to make something in life," said Weldon, substation supervisor and gang expert.

In a time of declining money for local governments, El Monte turned to a creative use of drug asset forfeitures to fund the new program. Under federal and state laws, local law enforcement agencies can claim a portion of the assets they seize and use the money for extras only, not routine expenses such as police cars or standard handguns.

Since 1989, Los Angeles County agencies have reaped more than $60 million in state forfeiture funds, according to the attorney general's office. In El Monte, about $340,000 of the city's $2-million forfeiture kitty will go to the substation over the next three years. After that, police plan to ask for city funding.

It's a novel use of drug money, which police departments typically use for high-tech equipment such as infrared night-vision goggles, laser fingerprint readers and specially equipped helicopters.

"A lot of times the criticism leveled against forfeitures is that police want a new helicopter, so they go seize one or (seize the drug) assets to have one," said Jeffrey J. Koch, supervising deputy attorney general in charge of the state asset forfeiture program. He called El Monte's approach unique.

El Monte's community relations officers came up with the substation idea after seeing an article about a similar substation in New Jersey. The officers figured that their programs, which are more extensive, could use their own home. Officers pitched the idea of using asset forfeiture funds to pay for the substation, and Police Chief Wayne C. Clayton gave the go-ahead.

The program started in 1975 with two community relations officers who worked out of a small City Hall office. The 3,300-square-foot substation is three times bigger and offers more services.

Previously, for instance, the community relations unit offered two part-time counselors; now, a full-time counselor, a part-time bilingual counselor and several counseling interns are available. Weldon selects the officers, based on their experience with at-risk youth and gang members. There also is a rotating spot, open to officers for a one-year stint. Besides working on crime prevention, officers have solved cases, from thefts and fights to murder, Weldon said.

Police and community leaders said the approach is working.

In the mid-1970s, El Monte had seven street gangs with a total membership of more than 1,500. These days, police said, there are two main gangs with about 100 members.

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