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Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands : Community: A spate of crimes, some of which were robberies and assaults in broad daylight, led women--with help of the Police Department--to organize their own neighborhood patrol.

August 05, 1993|DIANA S. KIM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SILVER LAKE — Peggy McCloud fondly recalls her childhood in rural Virginia, where neighbors regularly borrowed a cup of sugar or milk from one another and everyone knew who was who in town.

But today, life is far from being so warm and cozy for the Los Angeles resident. And it recently took a darker turn in McCloud's neighborhood on the west side of Silver Lake Reservoir.

Residents of the relatively quiet area, who were sometimes pestered by an occasional car theft or auto burglary, have recently been victimized by a spate of robbery-assaults in broad daylight, some at gunpoint.

One woman was followed home by two men in a car. After she entered her driveway, the men approached, brandished a gun and demanded her purse. She screamed; the robbers fled with the purse.

An elderly resident walking home was attacked by a man who tightened a towel around the victim's neck and demanded his wallet. A neighbor who heard the struggle chased the robber on foot, but he escaped in a car driven by an accomplice.

A woman watched from her living room window as her car, parked on the street, was hot-wired and the thieves sped away. Along with her roommate, she gave chase in another vehicle, but quickly thought better, fearing the thieves might be armed. The car has not been found.

These were only three of many horror stories related by McCloud's neighbors.

With the Los Angeles Police Department understaffed--new Mayor Richard Riordan wants to add 3,000 officers--and, at times, overwhelmed by crime, McCloud figured it was up to neighbors to look out for one another; to try to create that small-town feel, where one picks up the newspapers for another on vacation. She believed it was time for the residents to reclaim their neighborhood before it got out of hand.

McCloud first called on Katherine A. Martinez from across the street and, together, they recently rounded up 70 people for a first neighborhood meeting.

Newly seated Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and LAPD representatives showed up. Afterward, armed with police pamphlets on how to better protect themselves and with a formal Neighborhood Watch program in place, the residents believed they were not going to be victimized so easily. They are now on guard.

Signs are clearly posted on their windows: "Warning. Neighborhood Watch Program In Force. If I Don't Call The Police My Neighbor Will."

The sign also features the universal anti-burglar logo--a burglar in a black hat and coat crossed out by a red slash in a circle.

Some homes feature more hostile signs, such as those provided by private security services that warn of "Armed Response."

What has happened in this tiny area is not new. Similar Neighborhood Watch programs have been in place throughout the county for years. But it was a long time coming here.

"You can't help but look at the news on TV and newspapers and everyone is blasting L.A. as a horrible place to live," said McCloud, 39, who now has Martinez's phone number memorized. "The only way you're going to change it is to mobilize--people taking charge of their community and owning it."

McCloud and Martinez, with the help of the Police Department, have organized a phone tree, under which a block captain is responsible for networking about eight to 10 homes. The neighbors would know one another's work and home phone numbers, their schedules, the cars they drive and when the gardener, maid or baby sitter would arrive. There are about 12 block captains in the neighborhood.

"We're going to move forward with this, make this place safe for the children and push (the criminals) out," said Martinez, 31, as she leaned out McCloud's living room window and watched as a baby sitter walked into a neighbor's house. "They (the criminals) are going to move to another neighborhood."

The two neighbors-turned-activists sported bright yellow T-shirts featuring the anti-burglar logo and tough words on the back: "Warning. We're Watching."

"We want people to wear them when they're walking their dogs," said McCloud, who has ordered 100 to sell at $10 each, just enough to cover the cost. "We want visibility. Lots of visibility."

All this sits well with officers of the LAPD's Northeast Division, who say the recent rash of crimes in the area is partly due to half a dozen "young hoodlums" who are moving in from south of Sunset Boulevard. The division monitors 200 neighborhood watch groups. The 30-square-mile division is separated into six subregions, where each of the six senior officers answers to about 40 to 50 groups.

Officers hold quarterly meetings to get updates from the residents. Police teach them security-enhancing habits such as installing double-bolted locks in the homes and being more aware of immediate surroundings to help prevent carjackings and robberies at automated bank machines.

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