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FALCON Swoops in to Help a Neighborhood

Program involving police, lawyers and residents leads to trash cleanup, drive against drugs and the reclaiming of a park from gang.


The turnout for the first community meeting of the Hooper Block Project in October 1995 was not impressive: Five women showed up, all with their arms folded skeptically and all wearing the same "Why should we trust you?" scowl.

They had been promised many things and seen few results.

Crime and blight had taken over their Central City neighborhood, bordered by Washington and Adams boulevards and Central and Compton avenues.

Alleys were so jammed with refuse that residents couldn't walk through them. Vacant lots and abandoned houses attracted drug dealers and addicts in broad daylight. A gang had taken over a park, beating up lifeguards at the pool and charging admission to swimmers.

Calling the cops seemed futile. Better to stay home behind locked doors and keep to themselves.

But organizers of the 1995 meeting were determined to make a difference. They were the FALCON narcotics abatement unit, a team made up of members of the LAPD and the city's Building and Safety Department, led by the city attorney's office.

FALCON stands for Focused Attack Linking Community Organizations and Neighborhoods. The 6-year-old project is aimed at cleaning up drug-ridden neighborhoods by getting law enforcement, city agencies and community groups to work together.

The idea is to coordinate the efforts of everyone from police and attorneys to sanitation workers, explained Kevin Gilligan, a deputy city attorney who has spent the last five years as a FALCON community resource specialist.

Then, FALCON teaches the community how to get agencies to respond to its needs.

The Hooper Block area was clearly a challenge. "Very few people knew each other. Very few people knew the resources," Gilligan said. "No one wanted to use the park. The [20th Street Elementary] school was getting a low turnout at parent meetings."

Before that first meeting, FALCON members examined arrests--especially relating to drugs--at particular addresses, and the number of times police had been requested at a location. The team inventoried such problems as drug dealing, broken street lights and stray dogs and such assets as parks, local leaders and homeownership, discovering that about half of the houses were owned by the occupants.

Community resource specialists Gilligan and Eric Brown visited about 150 homes, asking residents to fill out questionnaires gauging interest in a mailing list for announcements of local events.

The first meeting in October 1995 was awkward. So, for the next one, they invited Juana Gutierrez, founder of Mothers of East Los Angeles, to inspire women to get involved.

The turning point came two months later at a neighborhood cleanup. "People were walking up on a Saturday with brooms and ready to paint," said Tina Hess, the deputy city attorney assigned to Hooper. "They were a neighborhood willing to take it back."

Along with cleanups, FALCON organized block clubs. Hilda Samoyoa, a mother of four who has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, was chosen to head this effort, meeting with block captains monthly.

"Now I know who is my neighbor. It's very important if, you know, if there are old people who live in the house next door," she said.

The block club meetings are attended by the community resource specialists as well as Senior Lead Officer Mike Salinaz of the LAPD's Newton Division. "They get to know me and trust me," Salinaz said.

Residents also started telling police about suspicious activity by gang members and about houses suspected of being used for drug dealing.

The most notorious of these houses was in the 1400 block of East 20th Street, where drugs were sold just a block from 20th Street Elementary.

Residents helped police identify the house, and in September, U.S. marshals began the process of seizing it and evicting the owners.

Police also were able to help residents reclaim the Central Recreation Center, which everyone in the neighborhood referred to as Loco Park, after the gang that had taken it over.

Police increased patrols at the park and struck a deal with gang members: If they used the park for activities such as basketball and did not harass others, they could stay. Otherwise, they would be kicked out.

"Just six months after we started, people were no longer afraid to go to the park," Hess said.

There has been a distinct change.

"There is 100% improvement in just the appearance alone," said Irene Hinojosa, principal of 20th Street Elementary. "I can't say everything is perfect, but the change is remarkable. Graffiti is removed almost immediately, and people are taking more interest in the community."

Councilwoman Rita Walters also praised FALCON's work in the Hooper community and would like to see the unit's efforts expanded.

"It's great to get people involved in taking care of their neighborhoods," said City Atty. James K. Hahn.

FALCON has moved on from Hooper to the Slauson area near Culver City. To inspire that community, Samoyoa and several other block captains spoke at the first Slauson meeting.

"We want to approach nuisance activities at locations as a whole," said Mary Clare Molidor, the new program's director.

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