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Citizen Patrols to Search for Rule Breakers

Laws: City Council approves expansion of program in which residents report neighbors' infractions.


Based on the success of a San Fernando Valley pilot project, the Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to expand a program that organizes residents to report building and safety code and other minor violations committed by their neighbors.

Over the next year, the Neighborhood Codewatch Program will go citywide, seeking volunteers prepared to report people who park their cars in their frontyards or put out too much trash, among other infractions.

"Codewatch is using our many residents in the city who want to not only bring problems to our attention but be part of the solution," said Councilwoman Laura Chick, the program's sponsor.

The program has been operating in the Valley since August, starting in Woodland Hills, Van Nuys and Reseda, and more recently in some neighborhoods on the Westside and in South-Central Los Angeles.

So far, roving bands of citizen volunteers have logged more than 800 violations, mostly small breaches of the city's building and safety code, which many of the offenders have rectified voluntarily.

Although the council unanimously approved the program's expansion, some officials expressed concern that it might encourage more hostile behavior from residents bent on nailing code violators.

"I am very concerned about vigilantism," Councilman Hal Bernson said. "That could . . . have very serious repercussions."

Bernson said that many neighborhoods already have their own Neighborhood Watch and other groups dedicated to residential improvement and oversight.

"I am concerned about people from outside my community coming into my community and confronting people," he said.

But Karen Oleon Wagener, executive director of the mayor's Volunteer Bureau, noted that the volunteers are recruited from within their own communities, then trained to spot a dozen types of offenses from graffiti to derelict cars.

To reduce the risk that they might pursue personal vendettas against neighbors, the volunteers are restricted to patrolling areas at least three blocks from their homes. They also cannot trespass on private property.

"It's not about snooping," Chick said. "Our volunteers aren't even working in their own neighborhoods."

Notification of a violation comes by letter, with follow-up notices and, ultimately, visits by city inspectors if the alleged offender fails to correct the problem.

In the first round of violation reports, almost half of the 207 homeowners who were told they were breaking the law voluntarily corrected the problem, saving the city nearly $41,000 in enforcement costs, a report on the program found.

Of the total 814 violations recorded in the report, nine out of 10 were building and safety code infractions, such as parking on the front lawn, open storage, excessive garbage and other eyesores. The rest dealt with street use, including illegal obstruction of the sidewalk.

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