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Patrols in L.A. Garment District Help Collar Crime

Business: Brightly dressed security units on foot and on bikes have helped make it safer and cleaner. And shoppers are starting to return.

December 01, 1996|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — They knew what to do when they decided to buttonhole pickpockets and sew up the panhandling problem in Los Angeles' garment district.

They called the fashion police.

And these days, the brightly dressed patrols that for nearly a year have scoured the 60-block downtown area on foot and by bicycle--and with rolling refuse cans--are cleaning up the place.

Crime has dropped 20%. Panhandlers and encampments of transients have all but disappeared from sidewalks and alleys. Graffiti is a thing of the past because of roll-down security doors that line the streets after dark.

Best of all, shoppers are starting to return to the 3,500 apparel and accessory stores that are mixed among aging lofts converted into garment factories.

And some wholesalers who say they were on the verge of making a wholesale exit from downtown three years ago are staying put in the place they have renamed the Fashion District.

"It's safer, better and cleaner," Heskel Shakerchi said from the second-floor wholesale lingerie shop that he has run for 14 years on Los Angeles Street.

Alleys were clogged with trash and sidewalks were littered when the fashion police first began making their rounds. Transients, their shopping carts overflowing, dozed in doorways. Thefts from cars and purse snatchings gave the place an air of lawlessness.

"This alley was literally difficult to walk through. The trash piled on the sides was falling into the middle," said Wayne McLaughlin, a veteran security expert who manages the private patrol from a converted warehouse off a Wall Street alley. Along with 10 bike patrol officers and six roving "ambassadors," he has a staff of 18 maintenance workers who continually sweep sidewalks and empty the curbside trash cans, disposing of two tons of refuse a day.

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At night, a crew of four paint out graffiti and clean sidewalks with pressure hoses. Four armed officers also patrol the district overnight in cars.

"I'd had a lot of experience in shopping malls. But nothing prepared me for this. It was like pushing the ocean with a broom," McLaughlin, 53, said of his first days in the garment district.

Agreed maintenance chief Rony Auceda, 44: "This place was like a 60-block building that was in poor condition."

The patrols use a city ordinance that bans blocking sidewalks to dissuade transients from sleeping in doorways and alleys. They use a state code that prohibits unauthorized use of shopping carts to keep vagrants from pushing them through the area. They give panhandlers a list of shelters and missions where food is available and ask them to move on.

"Over 95% are nice and compliant," said bike patrol officer Robert Baranowski, 28.

Baranowski said he and the others do not mind being labeled the fashion police. He said Los Angeles police even began calling them that after two of his colleagues caught several carjacking suspects two months ago on Maple Avenue.

Los Angeles Police Senior Lead Officer Joy Argomaniz, who supervises city police in the area, said Fashion District patrols have had a dramatic effect. "They're taking care of things we don't have time for," she said.

Along with so-called nuisance crimes such as panhandling and littering, "just their presence has helped reduce burglaries from motor vehicles and burglaries from businesses," Argomaniz said.

Fashion District bicycle squad members pedal about 30 miles a day. Their uniforms--black helmets, yellow shirts and black pants--make them stand out as they watch for thieves and answer questions from shoppers.

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As patrol officers Fabian Mejias and Courtney Harris were riding along Los Angeles Street, the two-way radios on their belts squawked out a call for assistance in a nearby alley. Another fashion patrol member had discovered an outbreak of illegal dumping.

Behind a row of storefronts, Angela Hires, a purple-clad "customer services ambassador," was standing guard over the evidence--a pile of cardboard and plastic wrap. Shopkeeper Cheng Kim explained that his trash pickup service had been canceled.

Hires suggested that if Kim needed assistance removing the rubbish he could negotiate with a homeless man in the area. "Jackson is down the street. If you need help cleaning up, he does an excellent job," she said.

Harris made a note to check back. If the trash was still there, Kim would be written up. Repeat offenders are referred to the city attorney's office for prosecution, he said.

The patrols are financed by fees paid by owners of the 720 parcels in the area roughly bounded by the Santa Monica Freeway and 7th, Main and San Pedro streets. The landlords formed a "business improvement district" that became effective in January for a three-year test run.

Fees are based on the size of shops and the amount of street frontage--about $2,100 annually for the typical store. This year's budget is about $2.1 million.

Fashion District workers said that while the area has a distance to go, it's money well spent. "People feel safe. The visibility of the patrols is what counts," said Fabbi Vasquez, who works in the finance department of California Mart.

Nasser Farzinpour, who for 14 years has run a hosiery shop, said the past few years were rough ones for the garment district. But for now, he said, "I think I'll stay."

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