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ON THE LAW

Tackling Neighborhoods' Little Woes Before They Grow Large

The L.A. city attorney's office has 18 prosecutors working with residents and police on petty violations that erode the quality of life.

June 28, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The unkempt fraternity house on the corner was a nagging reminder to Northridge homeowners of the peaceful existence they led before Pi Kappa Phi moved into their neighborhood more than a decade ago.

Over the years, residents complained about the fraternity's loud parties and trashy surroundings to Los Angeles police and city officials. But their troubles lingered without permanent resolution.

This month, an energetic young deputy Los Angeles city attorney named Anthony Paul "A.P." Diaz successfully prosecuted the owner of the fraternity house for a municipal code violation committed by his tenants.

The owner pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Under the terms of his probation, he may no longer use his property as a fraternity house or to host large parties.

"A lot of times, the community calls police, but then they are left with: 'What do we do next?' " said Diaz, one of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's 18 new "neighborhood prosecutors."

"Police officers spend most of the time responding to immediate calls," Diaz said. "What we can deal with is the aftermath."

In seeking to resolve quality-of-life issues, Diaz also is working with police and city officials to try to stop street racing in Chatsworth and drug dealing on North Hills' streets.

Delgadillo launched the Neighborhood Prosecution Project in March, transferring veteran prosecutors to work with police and residents to solve minor problems before they lead to larger ones.

The City Council funded the program for a year, providing one neighborhood prosecutor for each police district.

"It's little by little that things erode," said Mary McGuire, a spokeswoman for Delgadillo. "That's when the bigger crimes come in."

About half of the county prosecutors' offices nationwide engage in this preventive practice commonly known as community prosecution, according to a recent survey by the American Prosecutors Research Institute.

Community prosecutors have worked in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office since 1993, when they began by responding to neighborhood complaints about gang activity with injunctions to stop known gang members from associating in public, said Michael Yglecias, head deputy in charge of the unit. The district attorney's 20 community prosecutors work with sheriff's deputies in unincorporated areas of the county and with local police in smaller cities.

As recently as 1990, there were just two such programs in the nation, said Mike Kuykendall, director of the National Center for Community Prosecution. The most recent converts, he said, are local city attorney's offices, such as Delgadillo's.

As one of the nation's first community prosecutors in Portland, Ore., Kuykendall said, "I learned I could do more outside of the courtroom than in it."

With the community's help, he said, he shut down drug houses where many of the crimes were considered too low-level for police and courts to do much about.

Traditionally, prosecutors don't get involved in a community problem until police have investigated and filed criminal charges. This new approach encourages them to use existing tools, such as nuisance abatement laws, to improve safety, Kuykendall said.

After four years in a downtown Los Angeles trial court, Diaz, 31, applied to work in the new program. He is assigned full time to the Los Angeles Police Department's Devonshire Division, where his desk is in a trailer alongside nine senior lead officers.

The Loyola Law School graduate leaves his sport coat at the office when he gets in a patrol car to visit neighbors. He wears a prosecutor's badge on his belt and works from a cell phone and laptop computer. He talks to residents about problems such as junk cars and music blaring from illegal home recording studios.

"I believe the job that Rocky [Delgadillo] wants us to do is come up with nontraditional approaches to solving crimes," he said.

Driving down Parthenia Street, Diaz points to an ice cream factory as an early success. Neighbors complained that the owner held big parties on weekends and charged an admission fee. Diaz said that he met with the owner and that within two weeks the parties stopped.

At a neighborhood watch meeting last month in Panorama City, Diaz urged members to call him whenever they see an abandoned car on the street, or a sofa or bathtub dumped in a vacant lot.

"We have to come up with creative solutions to solve crimes," he told the dozen or so residents.

Diaz said he will try to solve a community problem by talking to property owners or asking other city agencies to act. But he has a strong weapon, whenever it's needed. "I always have the power to file criminal charges," he said.

That's one way that Diaz has helped residents of Sherwood Forest, a neighborhood that adjoins the Cal State Northridge campus and has been home to Pi Kappa Phi members.

In February, police in riot gear dispersed a crowd of more than 1,000 people that had spilled out into the street and onto neighbors' lawns at the fraternity's back-to-school bash.

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