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Scene of the Crime: Often, It's City Hall : Government: About $250,000 in cameras, computers and other items disappeared last year. And security officials for the building say the theft problem is getting worse.

September 26, 1993|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juan Goldstein was seeking a building variance in Los Angeles City Hall when he was hit. Sharmila Dasgupta was taking a coffee break. Edmund Gonzalez was standing at a City Hall urinal.

All of them became crime victims in the city's Downtown headquarters, an edifice so massive and unsecure that it is in the midst of a crime wave. An estimated $250,000 worth of property was pilfered from the building last year by an amalgam of light-fingered employees, visitors and transients.

And officials say the problem is getting worse.

"Anybody can walk through this building--anybody," one security official said. "Unless they are challenged, they can walk into offices, behind desks, into storage areas. Anything a person can carry is stolen here. A chair, a computer; you name it, it's taken."

At a time when many Downtown office buildings have security guards stationed at the door ready to question strangers, City Hall is as wide open as ever. No front desk to check in with. No metal detectors. Too many entrances to secure.

If getting in is easy, getting around is even easier. Without much trouble, outsiders can stroll through office suites and enter restricted areas, blending in with the bureaucrats.

"All city employees need to remain vigilant as to who is coming onto the floors and who is posturing as a messenger or service person," said Ted Goldstein, a spokesman for the city attorney's office. "It's very easy to steal from this Civic Center building."

Security at public buildings has always been a tricky proposition. On the one hand, the buildings are supposed to be symbols of democracy, allowing entrance to everyone. But they are also civic shrines that some say ought to be insulated from the tumult of the streets.

In City Hall, homeless people often roam the marble hallways--and sometimes manage to surreptitiously sleep amid the artwork and treasured city mementos at night. Vendors have been seen hawking fish and cutlery through the hallways, and indoor panhandlers sometimes hustle passersby for a buck.

Purses, such as Dasgupta's, disappear into thin air. Briefcases such as those carried in by Goldstein and Gonzalez are snatched and carried out. The latest crop of City Hall crime reports reads like the inventory of a bustling pawnshop. Computers, cellular phones, vacuum cleaners, jigsaws, hammers and cameras have all been stolen this year.

Those responsible for the building's security--about a dozen people per shift--attribute the problem to a guard force that has been reduced in half, to about 45 officers, because of budget cuts over the last decade.

In addition, security personnel complain that there are more vagrants congregating around the building and that city workers seem more inclined to steal from their colleagues.

"I don't want to indict the street people, but since there are more of them and times are tougher, they have become more aggressive," a security manager said. "And you can't forget the dishonest people we have on the city payroll."

Although acknowledging a worsening problem, security workers were reluctant to discuss the crime situation on the record for fear that they would draw attention to City Hall's woes. Detailed statistics comparing incidents over the years were not available but there was a consensus among officials that crime was rising steeply.

In charge of city security services is the General Services Department, a huge agency responsible for maintaining City Hall and scores of other city facilities scattered throughout the city.

A new security director, retired Los Angeles police Sgt. Gonzelo Cureton, came aboard this month, and City Hall's crime problem is at the top of his agenda.

As it is, the security force has no sworn city police officers, although LAPD provides officers to guard the mayor around the clock and, during the workday, the City Council chambers.

The last major look at City Hall crime, a 1985 Los Angeles grand jury report, concluded that there was an insufficient number of security personnel and, among its recommendations, called on city officials to lock the building's side entrances during the workday and to install surveillance cameras.

Some of the precautions have been taken, but budget constraints have prevented major security improvements. Surveillance cameras, for example, are used occasionally but have been deemed too expensive for widespread use.

Mirroring the situation outside the building, the fight against crime inside City Hall has become a frustrating--and losing--battle, security officials say.

"When the council decides that they are losing too much, the council will eventually decide enough is enough," one security manager said. "I'm not even sure the officials are aware of it now."

Security officials are pushing a plan that would require all employees to wear ID tags so those who do not belong would stand out a bit. Computers are being chained down and valuables locked up in the building's 500,000 square feet of office space.

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