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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Public Safety : Can we agree on down-to-earth steps to ensure that community-based policing actually will work? : Better Policing Is Within Reach

July 17, 1994|AMY PYLE

Los Angeles residents are victimized by crime 40 times an hour. Drive-by killings, serial child molesters, even a young girl's body entombed in a concrete-filled trash bin have become a part of this city's landscape.

Those seeking to make Los Angeles safe clearly have an unenviable, perhaps impossible, task--and no shortage of advisers.

Fear of crime dominates conversation. Even recent statistics showing some crimes on the decline have failed to derail the public's obsession with the topic. From that continuous debate have arisen thousands of heartfelt solutions, most of them unworkable, unpalatable or at least unaffordable.

The fundamental question: How can 7,600 Los Angeles police officers hope to shield more than 3.5 million people from murder, mayhem and the theft of their mag wheels? The simple answer: They cannot do the job alone.

The latest buzzword in public safety is "community-based policing," a notion nearly universally embraced by criminologists and police chiefs. By definition, the concept recognizes that police alone can't do job; we need to help them.

Certainly, crime is a national problem that cannot be solved in the microcosm. Cracking down on guns and drugs and addressing the root causes of violence--including poverty--can hardly be tackled city by city or block by block.

Yet the public has become acutely aware, after living through riots and natural disasters, that neither can individuals stand by and wait for society's greater ills to be cured, especially when the likelihood is that they never will be.

That is where the simplicity of community-based policing appeals. Neighborhood Watch is the most common and time-honored example, but increasing interaction between police and the people they are paid to protect can occur in less traditional ways. In Los Angeles this has meant Spanish classes for police officers, neighborhood police stations, citizen advisory councils and cops walking their beats.

Across the country, community-based policing is in vogue, but its vague definition has led to widely varying applications and to some successes:

-- In Columbia, S.C., city-sponsored mortgage breaks for police officers have helped 12 of them--5% of the force--move back to the inner city.

-- In Waterloo, Iowa, a couple organized their community to turn a closed bar into a recreation and arts center for teen-agers.

-- In Cleveland, neighborhood activists joined with police to drive drug dealers off a vacant lot, then worked with city housing officials to get houses built there.

Such diverse solutions to local problems illustrate some of the ways Los Angeles residents could get involved in increasing public safety, their participation limited only by their imaginations and abilities.

Victims' rights advocates think we should fight for stiffer sentences for violent criminals; those who work with adolescents say we should concentrate on counseling youth before violence becomes a lifestyle; urban planners talk of designing buildings and parks where people can both feel and be safer; police officials say that if we could only provide them with better technology, street cops would become more efficient and have more time to spend on the streets.

These suggestions are not revelations to even the most casual student of crime-prevention techniques, but they share an attribute more important than novelty: All are within reach, depending only on political will and public and private money.

For many of those closely involved with recommendations that followed the Los Angeles riots, such down-to-earth proposals offer hope that the rush to community-based policing will be more than a knee-jerk reaction to that uprising.

"I see community-based policing really being played out in the years to come--a police force that is very decentralized in many ways, with communities buying into the Police Department the way many do with fire departments," said Gil Ray, who was the lead staff attorney for the Christopher Commission. "What I don't know is if that's the future or the past; it's almost going back to beat policing."

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