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Residents Should Fight Crime--Not Each Other : Some Suggestions for 2 Feuding Groups in Van Nuys

March 06, 1994

Considerable attention has been devoted to the idea of giving Neighborhood Watch groups a formal disaster preparedness role. This comes at a time when their original crime-fighting role has never been more vital. What draws our attention this week, however, is the bitter feud between two such groups in Van Nuys.

Simply put, these two factions have the same goals and ought to be able to work together to help police thwart prostitution and drug crimes in their area. We also have a few rules of thumb on how citizens groups around the San Fernando Valley and its environs can be most effective and avoid unnecessary troubles.

In Van Nuys, the Town Keepers Action Group, headed by self-proclaimed citizen crime-fighter Mary Lou Holte, is at odds with a nearby Neighborhood Watch group led by lumber salesman Joseph Williams and his wife, Mary. The Williamses' group parades on the corner of Vanowen Street and Sepulveda Boulevard with video cameras, cellular phones, walkie-talkies and placards, warning prostitutes and their customers to stay away. Holte walks the streets urging the prostitutes and other crooks to get out, and she has made several citizen's arrests.

The Williamses say that Holte has gotten a lot of publicity for herself, and not much more. Holte says that the Williamses' efforts are just a publicity stunt. In fact, the squabble is a little ridiculous. The point is to expend energy on crime and the criminals, not on each other. Moreover, police have expressed concerns about the safety of both groups. "A lot of the (prostitutes) have pimps who have hired Southland gangs to protect them," said Officer Andrew Neiman of the Van Nuys squad.

One of the first things to remember here that is you should not get so close to the action that you become a part of it. That appeared to have been the case in Hollywood late last year when a Neighborhood Watch volunteer got into a scuffle with an alleged drug dealer and wound up being charged with attempted murder.

A particularly effective group of citizens in La Palma in Orange County has been given an order by police. "They're told to be good witnesses only," said Police Chief David Barr, "and not to take enforcement action of any kind."

Neither of the Van Nuys citizens groups have received any formal police training on how to identify criminals. They ought to inquire about receiving such guidance.

On the other hand, the task of helping police fight crime should not be left to small numbers of brave citizens. It is hazardous to visibly track suspicious people and questionable activity when you are working alone.

The best example of this comes from North Hollywood, where anti-gang crusader Viviana Guerra was recently struck in the head by a rock thrown by suspected gang members. Guerra has received little or no help from her neighbors; that fact has only left the gang more emboldened.

Interested neighbors should start with a planning committee. Next, pick leaders and decide on the geographic boundaries of your efforts. Start with a small area. Keep police informed and seek their guidance at every step. Determine your neighborhood's crime problems and discuss solutions with police. Most important: Work together. The folks in Van Nuys ought to start there.

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