Acknowledging that traditional crime-fighting methods have failed to protect a San Fernando Valley "ghost town"--a cluster of apartment buildings left uninhabitable by quake damage--city officials announced Friday that they will deploy police on horseback at the site and replace some unarmed private guards with those who carry guns.
The stepped-up security measures at the North Hills ghost town just east of the San Diego Freeway could go into effect as early as this weekend, just a week after neighbors complained that unarmed guards hired by the city are useless because they can't stand up to possibly dangerous drug dealers, gang members and other interlopers.
"We had no idea they would move this quickly, we're just tickled to death," said Harry Coleman, chairman of the North Hills Task Force, a citizens group. "For the first time since the quake, I'm optimistic that teamwork is really working."
Under the plan proposed by Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, 10 private guards will be assigned to patrol the ghost town, four more than previously. Two of the guards will be armed and will patrol the area in a car.
Mounted police officers will begin patrolling the area as soon as officials can relieve them of other duties, said Cmdr. Scott LaChasse of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"With mounted officers, you've got the visibility factor you need," LaChasse said. "Not only are they more visible to the public, the officers themselves can see more" because the officers have a high vantage point.
The private guards are being bolstered by guards with guns as "a protective thing for them," he said.
Ever since the Northridge quake created at least 13 clusters of uninhabited apartment buildings in the Valley, Hollywood and the mid-city area, some neighbors have complained about problems ranging from squatters barbecuing inside abandoned units to prostitutes and drug dealers setting up shop in the parking lots.
But the extra security measures announced Friday are necessary only at the North Hills site, largely because of pre-existing crime problems there, police said. In an effort to reduce drive-by drug trafficking in the same general area, police barricaded some streets east of the freeway between Roscoe Boulevard and Nordhoff Street several years ago.
The city is paying for the guards by tapping a $4-million federal disaster relief fund it received to board up, fence off and protect the ghost towns. The armed guards will cost about $18 an hour, only $3 more an hour than unarmed guards, said Pat Bonino, supervisor of disaster recovery for the City Administrative Office.
Initially, the city had not hired armed guards because local police officials feared that could lead to violent confrontations and subsequent lawsuits against the city. But in response to Alarcon's request that the LAPD take a second look at the issue, LaChasse testified Friday before an emergency meeting of the city's Ad Hoc Committee on Earthquake Recovery that some armed guards would be acceptable.
"It has to be based on specific facts, on a rationale that they're needed," LaChasse said.
City officials cited two incidents--one of which occurred in the North Hills ghost town--that they said proved extra security measures were needed at that site.
Thursday, an unarmed guard reported that a man in the ghost town fired a gun at a passing car, they said. Earlier this year, a police officer was attacked near a quake-damaged house west of the freeway by a vandal wielding a shock absorber, said Sgt. Jack Ahrens of the LAPD's Devonshire station.
The city has hired armed guards before to protect employees in high-crime areas, including the Downtown offices of the Community Redevelopment Agency, said Barbara Zeidman, assistant general manager of the city's housing department, which administers the security program. "It's not unprecedented," she said.
The council's earthquake recovery committee will review the new security program in 30 days to determine whether it is working, officials said.