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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : On the Defensive : Rising Fear of Crime Fuels a Boom in Security Items--Even in Places That Are Essentially Safe


Judging by the security measures its residents take, the Westside might seem one of the most dangerous places in Los Angeles, if not the entire state.

There's the kudzu-like proliferation of signs warning of armed response from home security services, plus the fleets of silently cruising private patrol cars, the homes rigged with motion detectors and security lights, and the omnipresent oinking of auto alarms.

That's not to mention the proliferation of portable security devices: restraining clubs locked across steering wheels, canisters of pepper spray, palm-sized stun guns and hand-activated personal alarms.

Given this, an out-of-towner might assume that crime runs rampant in such usually quiet neighborhoods as Malibu, Brentwood and the Hollywood Hills.

In reality, of course, what most of the Westside's more affluent residents are doing is what they do best--placing themselves at the leading edge of a nationwide trend. In this case, it's the boom in spending on auto, home and personal security.

Last year, Americans spent more than $400 million on safety equipment and services, double the amount of 15 years ago, according to American Demographics magazine. As the fear of violent and once-unheard-of crimes such as carjackings and follow-home robberies permeate the consciousness of suburban America, a world of items such as blindness-inducing flashlights, life-sized, latex "Safe-T-Men" (for people who live or drive alone) and keychain-attached batons are becoming increasingly popular.

On the Westside, the call to arms has been particularly strong. Jon Cobb, vice president at Westec, perhaps the most recognizable of the home security agencies that patrol the area, said sales of the service are up 20% to 25% this year for homes in and around West Los Angeles.

Similarly, at Security 20/20 in Beverly Hills, consultant Mike Peterson said sales of pepper spray have been "very favorable" since the company began selling the item in May after its legalization by the state. "We're getting people from all over West Los Angeles," he said.

Underlying the surge in security purchases are anxious suburbanites concerned about crime in their neighborhoods. In a Time magazine/CNN poll taken last year, in fact, 30% of those surveyed nationwide said they believed that crime is just as prevalent in the suburbs as it is in urban areas.

Paty Lancaster, whose Mar Vista house was burglarized in March, says that in talking to neighbors after the break-in, she was surprised to learn how many people in the area had also experienced crime.

"Until people talk to each other, you don't hear about it, but it turns out it's been happening a lot," said Lancaster, who helped form a Neighborhood Watch group on her block. "We're just more aware of it now."

Brentwood resident Richard Kjeldsen, who has lived in the area for more than two decades, says he does not personally feel at greater risk. But concern about crime, he adds, has nevertheless increased dramatically among neighbors. "A lot of my friends are frantic," he said.

The reality of crime, though, is not so clear-cut. Though pockets of Venice and Hollywood do suffer from high crime, the areas of the Westside where the most is spent on security are usually the safest. And although violent crime has risen in suburban areas, according to FBI statistics, murder rates in 1992 were still 81% lower in the suburbs than in large central cities, rates of robbery were 88% lower and rates of rape were 56% lower.

Even in Los Angeles, which has the second-highest rate of suburban crime among major American cities (behind only Miami), suburban crime still lags far behind that of the central city area.

Security experts attribute the public's rising concern as much to media reports as to crime rates. On a daily basis, people are exposed to more accounts of crime than ever before, a phenomenon noted recently by the Tyndall Report, a magazine that monitors television news. A February article in the magazine stated that "violent crime has become more newsworthy because . . . the news media have chosen to make it so."

"If you look at the crime statistics, crime is not necessarily up . . . (but) it's a lot more visible in the media," concurred Jon Cobb. "People are more aware of what's going on in and around their communities." Agreed Hemsworth: "A lot of it is perception. Crime is up in certain areas and it's down in certain areas."

Indeed, for West Los Angeles, where the local boom in security is perhaps most evident, the crime picture is a mixed one.

The number of robberies increased 110, about 8%, from 1992 to 1993, but the number of homicides and rapes declined during that period. Overall, crime is down in the area, said Capt. Constance Dial, patrol commanding officer of the West Los Angeles Division.

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