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Heat on the Street : Whether posting lookouts or cruising in unmarked cars, the LAPD's Special Problems Unit takes a hard-charging tack to fighting crime.


WEST LOS ANGELES — Parked in an unmarked cruiser at Pico Boulevard and Holt Avenue late one night, a pair of uniformed police officers see a man running down the sidewalk toward a parked car where two tourists are fumbling with a map.

The officers pull their car onto the sidewalk, blocking his path.

Dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt, black pants and black tennis shoes, the man tells them he wants to help the women find their way. He does not have an answer for the .357 Magnum in his hand.

He is a career criminal just out on parole from the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, where he did three years for armed robbery. Getting caught with a gun earns him nine more months of hard time.

Score one for SPU-CAT, a nine-member squad that fights violent crime in the Los Angeles Police Department's West L.A. Area. The name stands for Special Problems Unit-Criminal Apprehension Team, and it sounds like it looks: "Spew-Cat."

Five months old, its achievements include a significant drop in armed robberies, purse snatchings, burglaries and auto thefts, as well as the arrest of a "Bonnie and Clyde" couple wanted for dozens of violent stickups from San Diego to San Francisco.

Its officers devote their afternoons to shuffling through street maps and crime reports. They look for patterns in the crimes that plague a 63-square-mile sprawl of busy commercial avenues, quiet neighborhoods and crowded apartment blocks.

Then they hit the streets, cruising for crooks in battered Fords and Chevys borrowed from West L.A. detectives.

They drive through the squalid blocks of gangster turf near the Santa Monica Freeway one night. They don black masks the next, crouching on rooftops along Pico Boulevard to spy for burglars.

Sometimes they hide for hours in the bushes, hoping to catch robbers at work.

Earlier this summer, they spent their Saturdays in Temescal Canyon, spotting car burglars and auto thieves from observation posts high on the hillside, then swooping down to pick them off. These crimes, once as frequent as 20 a week, are now down to near zero.

Their badges are shiny but their equipment is worn. The scratchy signals on their outdated radios are often hard to understand; sometimes they borrow the on-board computers of passing black-and-white patrol cars to check suspects' IDs.

All of them volunteered for the assignment, which takes them away from the officer's routine of responding to radio calls and writing preliminary reports for detectives to investigate.

Working from physical descriptions, license plate numbers and other scraps of information gleaned from victims and witnesses, they seek to stop and question as many likely suspects as they can.

One trick is to drive up alongside a suspicious vehicle in traffic and check to see if there are keys in the ignition. No keys means the car has been hot-wired.

Sometimes they deal with crimes as they break. On Wednesday, they scrambled to Palms Park, at Overland and National avenues, where six men had attacked two teen-agers with Taser guns, beat an adult companion and made off with a wallet and two pairs of athletic shoes.

After a one-mile foot chase along a railroad track, the six were arrested with the help of patrol officers and a police helicopter.

Since they started their work in March, the officers have made 121 arrests for violent felonies, said Sgt. William Whyte, who heads the unit.

Most of the arrestees were on parole or probation, Whyte said. An arrest with a gun can be enough to send them back to prison, and indeed, about 70% are back behind bars.

"Our crime statistics are going down as our arrest statistics are staying up, which seems to support this use of police personnel," said Capt. Gary Brennan, commander of the Police Department's West Los Angeles Area, which includes the Westside portion of Los Angeles north of Venice Boulevard and west of La Cienega Boulevard.

But this kind of aggressive policing has its risks, physical and political, especially when an understaffed department is struggling to provide basic police services to a city that has yet to recover from last year's riots.

"It's a balancing act," said Capt. Ron Seban, patrol commander at the West Los Angeles station.

"Is it more important to have a little lower response time to radio calls, as opposed to putting people in jail that are robbing people at gunpoint in the street?" he asked. "I think I would go with the latter. . . . These guys value human life at nil, and the next thing you know, boom--someone is dead."

The officers do not apologize for being aggressive. Even when their stops do not result in arrests, they say, the point is made.

"I'm kind of hard-charging," said squad member Alex Guiral, 28, a former Marine sniper who has been on the police force for 4 1/2 years. "If I get paid to do something, I want to do it. I applied (to the force) to put criminals where they belong."

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