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Police Centers: Outreach or Overreaching?

LAPD: Neighborhood mini-stations may be too numerous and costly.

March 31, 1997|DADE HAYES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They popped up like gourmet coffee shops, occupying corners of shopping malls, office buildings and busy thoroughfares throughout the city.

Now, some public officials worry that the Los Angeles Police Department's Community OutReach Centers may have expanded too fast too soon.

The City Council's powerful Public Safety Committee is taking a hard look at the network of mini-stations created to ease congestion in the city's 18 main police stations and make the department more approachable to the public. Of the 125 centers, 113 opened in the last four years, a time when Chief Willie Williams was putting renewed emphasis on the department's decades-old community policing effort.

In its own review of the network, the LAPD acknowledged that several substations have already been closed for lack of use. And Williams recently ordered that no more be opened until their cost and effectiveness, including whether they actually reduce crime, are evaluated further. Questions persist about whether the substations' expense is justified by the number of citizens who use them.

Several police and government officials defend the substations as important symbols of community policing, in which officers work with the public to try to prevent crime rather than simply respond to crimes as they occur.

But police officials acknowledge they have lost track of the substations' cost because their miscellaneous expenses have been paid for by another city department. Most sites are provided rent-free by businesses and council district offices and are staffed partly by volunteers. But it still proves expensive to bring the facilities up to building codes.

"The LAPD has become so used to handouts that when businesses say, 'Here's some space for free,' they jump and say, 'Great! We'll take it!' " said Councilwoman Laura Chick, the west San Fernando Valley representative who is chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee. "But I think it's time to slow down and see if it's really increasing public safety."

Chick also pointed out that the city's long-sought goal and perpetual campaign promise of "more cops on the street" may not be in sync with the centers, though staffing ranges from partly to mostly volunteer.

"We're taking officers off the street and putting them in office space," she said. "We need to ask, are people in the community getting frustrated by this?"

The substations began expanding about five years ago in the months after the Rodney G. King beating and the Christopher Commission report on police reform, which strongly recommended better communication with the public.

Police persuaded property owners throughout the city to donate office space they couldn't fill during the recession, an arrangement that seemed heaven-sent for a cash-strapped department struggling to regain credibility and focus.

Today, with the imminent departure of a chief criticized for being long on style and short on substance, the substations have become a logical target for scrutiny.

"It's definitely a political hot potato," Chick said. "But I give Chief Williams a lot of credit. I don't think it was all his invention. I don't think it was something that came from Parker Center. I think it came through the community."

Records and interviews show that police were unprepared for the amount of incidental expenses at the substations for everything from drywall repair to electric bills to landscaping.

Because they were not budgeted, those expenses fall into a category for unplanned costs that are paid for by the city's Department of General Services rather than the Police Department. So the cumulative cost has been easy to overlook, officials said.

"It is easier for LAPD not to worry about what it's costing because they're handing it to another department," Chick said. Police are already aware of the hidden costs. "If you looked at these as a profit-making enterprise . . . we wouldn't be breaking even," said Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker, an outspoken proponent of community-based policing.

Kroeker said he believes in the idea of substations but would like to see the department be more selective in choosing their locations, rather than simply relying on the largess of property owners. The substations might also be more successful, Kroeker said, if the department did some advance marketing research, not unlike businesses.

"We're not selling a product," Kroeker said, "but we are providing a service."

Aside from concerns about the substations' cost, there also are enough doubts about the public's awareness and use of the centers that Williams himself has ordered that no more of them be opened until the program is thoroughly reviewed.

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