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Crimebusters : Echo Park Residents Work Together to Try to Rid Their Neighborhoods of Gangs, Tagging and Drug Dealing

March 20, 1994|WILLIAM NETTLES | William Nettles, 38, helped found the Echo Park Improvement Assn., a group of residents who fight crime in the community. About 75 people are active members, attending graffiti paint-outs, monthly meetings and other events. Nettles, a free-lance photographer, was interviewed by Mike Wyma

I've been living in Echo Park about 10 years. When I moved to Los Angeles, I never thought I could live this far from the ocean, but my girlfriend lived in Echo Park so I kept visiting. I thought it was real pretty but there were a lot of guys selling drugs in the street. A lot of gang members. My tires got slashed one night along with about half the other cars on the street.

Then we got a house. I was going to have to do something about the neighborhood or just live with it. We had a guy selling drugs across the street and he got shot one day by the people up the street selling drugs. Gang kids used to run up our driveway to the hillside to hide from the police. This was about '84.

One night a guy took a shot at my house. The cops came out in the morning. They lived out in Newhall or someplace. They said, "Jeez, what do you expect when you live here?" I thought that was a pretty crummy attitude.

I started working on the crime problem. I put security lights up on the house, figuring if they're hiding they don't want lights. They never came back.

I started working with my neighbors to get the drug dealers out. We learned to talk to the neighbors living around the dealers. You find out the dealer's name, what they're selling and what time they're selling. You give the information to the LAPD and they don't need to do a lot of investigating. Undercover guys can make the bust and the community is on the way to solving the problem.

We found that a lot of people had similar problems. So people got together and held a meeting at St. Athenasius Church. Senior Lead Officer Joe Writer--we call him the Sheriff of Echo Park because he takes our problems personally--helped us get organized.

When a dealer or a crook gets arrested, Joe offers them three choices: Stop what they're doing and clean up their act, go someplace where people don't care, or stay in Echo Park and continually be arrested because the community isn't going to tolerate it.

At Lamoyne and Effie streets, a gang was hanging out for a couple of years in three houses. The gang thought they controlled that corner. They painted everything with their gang tags and their street names. They shot at houses.

Our people talked to the landlords and let them know they were going to be held responsible. We got the police to put pressure on the gang. The LAPD sent a special task force that got court orders and posted the properties "Off limits to everyone but tenants."

These guys got the message that it's time to move out.

At our monthly Echo Park Improvement Assn. meeting, we have a pin map of our area that shows the robberies, burglaries, car thefts and recovered stolen cars. When you know what's happening, you can do something about it. Some guy who steals a car isn't going to drive it to his house, or leave it five miles from home. He's going to leave it two or three blocks from where he lives. So on the map where you see a lot of recovered grand theft autos, you draw a circle and you have a pretty good idea who your car thief is.

If a gang kid goes out and paints his name on every wall in town, we go around and take Polaroids of his mess. We give these to the police and they give them to his probation officer. The probation officer calls him up and says, "You just got yourself another 100 hours of community service." That cuts down a lot on our gang tagging problem.

Our No. 1 drug problem is liquor stores. Street drugs are nothing compared to the damage alcohol has done to Echo Park. We've got 45 places to buy alcohol within a mile of Sunset and Echo Park Boulevard. I have a database on the liquor stores and some of the violations against them. Some of these places have had stabbings, shootings. Some sell crack pipes and most of them are in violation of their liquor license.

Another thing we did: We got 500 people in the community to pay $10 a month and we contracted with a security company. They drive around and the bad guys feel a little more insecure and the good people feel a little safer. Then on a Friday or Saturday night when you can't get through on 911, we can always get a security officer in three or four minutes.

All the work we do is time-consuming but really rewarding. When you know that your neighborhood is safer and you see kids playing in the street and you know you have something to do with that, that's worth more than money. I can't affect what's happening in Bosnia or even have much effect on Washington. But in Echo Park I can make a difference.

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