The Gray Squad is a new outreach and education program operated by the West Valley Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. The squad works with older people, providing them with information on crime prevention, referrals to other agencies and other services.
The unit is headed by Officer Iain Hamilton, a 22-year department veteran. Six citizen volunteers, ranging in age from 50 to 71, also work in the program.
Question: What are the most frequent crimes against older people?
Answer: The most frequent crime we see out here against the elderly are bunco-forgery type crimes--where they get ripped off financially--and elder abuse, either by their family or a rest home or someplace they're living.
Q: When we talk about elder abuse, what comes under that term?
A: It can go all the way from psychological to physical. The ones we get involved in are the physical and the bunco-forgery aspects of elder abuse.
Q: Based on your experience, do you find that older people are willing to report that they've been a victim of crime?
A: I think in cases where maybe they're being victimized by their children, they're embarrassed to call. There are no statistics to back it up--this is just a general feeling.
Q: What are the things that older people might tend to do that increases the likelihood that they will be victims of crime?
A: I think generally as people grow older they become more trusting. That might be because as they grow older, they look to other people for assistance more than they did when they were young. When they become overly trusting, they're opening themselves to people who can take advantage of them. I'd say that's the main trait that gets a lot of older folks into trouble.
Q: After the killing of two older people in the Valley in October, The Times ran an article in which older people talked about feeling as if they were prisoners in their own homes. How do you strike the balance between saying, "Here's what you need to do to be safe," but also letting people know that they don't have to be prisoners in their homes?
A: We find if we educate people it gives them more confidence. We tell them what to look for.
You don't carry your handbags with large amounts of money over your arm and things like that. Education creates confidence in people, and once they understand how not to be a victim, these feelings may dissipate. They may feel, "I can go out because I know how to protect myself better."
Q: What is the purpose of the Gray Squad?
A: The department has changed a lot in the last few years. This is one example where our department is really reaching out to the community to help more than we have in the past perhaps. The credit has to be given to our commanding officer, Val Paniccia, and also Councilwoman Laura Chick's office. Capt. Paniccia and Councilwoman Chick decided that a program like this was important and needed in the West Valley area, and I was asked to coordinate it.
It's an outreach program. It's an education and referral service. We can provide information through our officers and various offices in the city. We can have our senior lead officers come out to a group and educate about crime prevention. If older folks are having trouble with any aspect of government bureaucracy, they can call us and we can refer them to the appropriate agency. I may not be able to answer their question or solve their problem, but I can direct them to the people who can.
The department has received a lot of criticism in the past for not being in the community in a strong enough sense. The new department is making greater efforts and this is just one example.
Q: So people don't have to be crime victims to utilize the services of the Gray Squad?
A: No, not at all. We would encourage anybody who has particular questions about problems in their life to call us. We would also encourage care-givers of the elderly to contact us with problems also. It is not limited solely to older people who are or who have just become a victim. It's a program of help, a program where we can help as many people as possible.
Q: Can you give us an example of a situation where you've been helpful in connecting someone with the appropriate agency?
A: I'll give you an example. This was an anonymous call. A lady had been visiting her elderly parent in a rest home and she noticed that there were other older people in the home that had bruises. Being a frequent visitor, she saw this was something new. She didn't want to accuse anybody, but she indicated there was a recent staffing change. I was able to take the scant information she gave and forward it to an ombudsman who's responsible for looking into the care of the elderly at rest homes, and they promised me a follow-up investigation.
Q: Are there ways people in the community and older people themselves can become involved?