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Border Tensions : Lakewood Claims Imbalance in Law Enforcement

September 23, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BELLFLOWER — It was once easy to confuse Bellflower and Lakewood. On either side of their common border were tracts of post-World War II single-family houses, strip malls and wide, even avenues.

These were the suburbs idealized in such 1950s television shows as "Father Knows Best." But Bellflower has become more crowded, graffiti has spread and crime has risen. In fact, calls for help from police have increased so rapidly in Bellflower that a rift has developed between the two cities, which share in a regional contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Lakewood complains that its northern neighbor is sucking the area's law enforcement off Lakewood streets as sheriff's deputies run from one Bellflower call to another.

Lakewood has threatened to leave the contract it shares with Bellflower, Artesia and Hawaiian Gardens. If that threat is carried out, the cost of police protection would escalate in the remaining cities, which are already cash-starved, authorities said. Officials in the other cities said the move could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars more a year.

In 1976, Cerritos pulled out of the regional contract, also complaining that calls from other cities were pulling police cars off its streets.

To appease Lakewood, and to keep the regional contract intact, Bellflower officials have suggested imposing a 5% utility users tax on residents to pay for deputies who would work only in Bellflower.

For about $5 per household per month, city officials say, six or seven deputies, a detective and a sergeant could be added to the Bellflower beat. These would be in addition to the three deputies assigned to the city, thus taking strain off the regional pool. The tax would have to be renewed by council vote after three years.

Law enforcement would take 60% to 80% of the new tax revenues, with the remainder going toward street repair and maintenance. The issue will be discussed at public hearings Oct. 11 and 25 before the council votes.

Proponents say the plan has been well received at neighborhood watch meetings, where city staff members have explained the proposal in recent months. But some citizens are questioning the need for a new tax or new deputies and asking: What happened to their quiet little suburban town?

"At night, you can hear gunshots now," said Myrna Benton, who graduated from Bellflower High School in 1971 and is raising her family here.

Bellflower's story is a familiar one in Southeast Los Angeles County: creeping urban decay, the rise of gang violence, people packed together into smaller spaces. Overcrowding is often cited as a reason for the decline of this city of 63,000. The population in 1960, just a few years after the city was incorporated, was 45,892.

"Most of the problem is contributed by absentee landlords," said Mike Egan, deputy city administrator. "As owners rent out and leave the area, they take less care. The structures deteriorate."

A building boom in the 1970s and '80s brought new apartments at the same time that many homeowners began renting their houses. From 65% to 70% of residents do not own their homes, Egan said.

"It's the renters who seem to draw the most calls," said Sheriff's Capt. John Anderson, whose Lakewood office serves a number of Southeast cities.

Although Bellflower's crime rate has steadily risen in all categories, many of the city's extra calls, Anderson said, are nuisance reports. On weekends, deputies spend much of their time quieting loud parties and family fights, Anderson said. The fear of rising crime--the perception that the streets are dangerous--also has led to an increase in calls, authorities said.

Calls for police service in Bellflower jumped from an average of 1,918 per month in 1988-89 to 2,986 in 1992-93. And reports of major crimes--murder, assault, rape, robbery, burglary, grand theft auto and arson--grew from an average of 336 a month in 1988-89 to 377 a month in 1992-93.

Lakewood, with a population of 74,000, has seen a much slower rise in calls for service over the same period: from 2,082 monthly to 2,483. But reports of major crimes, which averaged 328 a month in 1988-89, rose to 408 a month in 1992-93.

The result of all the calls from Bellflower is that patrol cars are not as visible on Lakewood streets, Anderson said.

Although the most violent crimes--such as homicide, rape, robbery and assault--have dropped in Lakewood since 1991, crimes of opportunity such as burglary and auto theft have continued a steady rise. "The very presence of sheriff's units is a deterrent to crime," Lakewood spokesman Don Waldie said. "If they aren't on our streets, they aren't fulfilling part of their function." He added that the disparity between the police presence in Lakewood compared to that in Bellflower "has become too great to ignore. We're paying for services we're not getting."

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