GARDEN GROVE — For the roughly 800 residents squeezed into apartments along Palma Vista Avenue, days and nights were filled with noise, street fights, car thefts and police officers trying to make arrests.
But seven months ago, two patrolmen began an experiment. Assigned to cover the neighborhood as a beat, Officers Patrick Ryan and Bill Whalen became a constant presence on the cul-de-sac. Rather than only responding to calls for police, they also worked the beat, often on bicycles, trying to get to know residents and thwarting problems before they started, police officials say.
The result: Crimes including car thefts, burglary and petty theft decreased an average of 50%, police officials say. And this month, the Police Department adopted the program citywide, increasing the number of patrol officers on the streets and dispatching them to a reworked beat system with smaller patrol areas.
"Instead of being 100% crime-driven, we want to be more problem solving and address quality-of-life issues," said Garden Grove Police Capt. Scott Jordan, who helped design the changes. "The old issue of an officer's job to write tickets and make arrests is changing. We want to be more of a mediator to bring in other resources."
On Wednesday night, owners of several apartment buildings on the street met in the city's community center to sign a partnership agreement with Officers Ryan and Whalen, as a symbolic pledge to help maintain the area's improvements.
Police officials last year chose the Palma Vista neighborhood as a testing ground, because officers said they were continually returning to that street to arrest people for crimes such as graffiti, car theft and public drinking.
Ryan and Whalen tried a new tack.
They held meetings with apartment owners, surveyed residents about crime and organized outings for the neighborhood's kids.
When two female graffiti artists were caught with indelible markers, the officers didn't arrest them; they assigned the girls to spend 10 hours on a Saturday painting over graffiti.
They nudged apartment owners to maintain outdoor lighting, to discourage public drinking and car thefts. They encouraged the removal of trash and other debris from around buildings.
They contacted the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to establish troops in the neighborhood, which the organizations did. They took children from the neighborhood to the circus when it came through town.
They called on the city's Parks and Recreation Department to design a recreation area on Steele Street, a short road that extends off the end of Palma Vista Avenue. And they called in the city's code enforcement officers to help them inspect some of the more than two dozen two-story apartment buildings that line the avenue.
Slowly, the cul-de-sac began a transformation, some residents said.
"This place was real ugly with the graffiti and the trash," said Myra Rojas, 39, who has lived on Palma Vista for about two years. "And there were all the delinquents on the street. . . . But now it's better. I'm real comfortable."
Local business owners say they also felt benefits. K mart manager Mike Hawkins said his store, just north of the neighborhood on Katella Avenue, has seen a decrease in shoplifting during the past several months, which he attributes to the frequent presence of Ryan and Whalen.
"Those guys were great," Hawkins said.
Lt. Scott Hamilton said a "key component to success of community policing is having some sort of maintenance plan in place. You can't go through all this and walk away from it and expect it to continue on itself. It needs some nudging and nurturing."
At the meeting with 10 landlords Wednesday night, the police officers discussed the future of Palma Vista Avenue.
"We need to be united," said Moshe Kapon, who has owned an apartment building on the street since 1989. "There are many owners on the street. . . . We need to keep the street clean and quiet."
Police said the problems with the Palma Vista neighborhood are typical of those that confront thousands of other apartment dwellers in Orange County.
"Any time you get high-density residential, apartments or condominiums, where you have concentrated a lot of vehicles and a lot of people and a lot of foot traffic, there are going to be more problems," Hamilton said. "You have cars in carports, and burglars know it is like a cornucopia of car prowling because they can walk up and down and look for valuables and keys in cars."
Already, apartment owners in Santa Ana, Huntington Beach and Anaheim have called the Garden Grove Police Department to learn about the experiment there, Ryan said.
Police Department officials are quick to say that they cannot extend the same attention to every neighborhood.
"There are far more areas to be addressed than there are resources to address them," said Chief Stanley L. Knee. "So we will always prioritize" by going to the places that need the most help, he said.