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On the Lookout for Illegal Dumpers

City workers stake out tunnels and alleys where people often leave old furniture and TV sets.

May 15, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

David Joiner strategically parks his SUV at a corner that offers a clear view of a darkened tunnel beneath a freeway overpass in South Los Angeles, a black baseball cap pulled low over his forehead.

His partner, Audrey Moore, soon joins him and this undercover team settles in for the long wait. Not for drug deals. Not for carjacking, robbery or vandalism. They're on the lookout for people who drop an old sofa or box spring in the middle of the tunnel.

They are the undercover cops of illegal dumping. Armed with only a pair of handcuffs and a digital camera to record violations of misdemeanor litter laws, they are notching a few victories.

Fifty-nine people have been arrested in the first three months of a program to stop illegal dumping. With a surveillance team that numbers about 20 public works inspectors, the city says it is rounding up the tattered furniture and broken TV sets that are cluttering alleys and overpasses -- along with the perps who are leaving them.

At a news conference Wednesday in Watts to announce the early results of the program, a city bulldozer cleared out a mound of trash dumped in an alley.

"It's going to be a tough battle," Mayor James K. Hahn said. "For years and years people said, 'Let's go down to Watts and dump our trash.' Or some other community. It's not fair to the people who live here. It's not their trash. It's coming from miles away."

Although illegal dumping happens citywide, the biggest problem is in South Los Angeles. In the past 10 months, the city has removed 6,200 truckloads of illegally dumped trash from the area -- about half the city total.

City officials agreed in January to set up the surveillance teams. The job was given to civilian public works crews, rather than police officers, who are focused on more serious crimes. When the trash teams make an arrest, they cuff the suspects and call for a police cruiser. Not being armed, they're trained to back away if a suspect gets violent.

The 20 inspectors must cover alleyways, fence lines and tunnels from the harbor to the San Fernando Valley. All of them hold other jobs within the Department of Public Works and may go on patrol only about once a week.

Surveillance cameras posted at known dumping grounds are bolstering the effort. The city attorney's office said Wednesday that it has purchased five cameras to monitor illegal dumping.

In a typical 7 p.m. to midnight shift, Joiner and Moore said, they might arrest two suspects. They're surprised by the brazenness of violators and numbed to the familiar litany of excuses.

After the pair flashes a badge they might hear, "Everyone dumps here. Why are you picking on me?" Or, "Can I please put it back in my car?" Or, "What happened to a warning?"

One suspect had dumped an old TV set in the tunnel. When Moore asked him why, he said he didn't want to leave it in front of his house because it was an eyesore and he didn't want to wait for the city to take it away. So he put it in the tunnel under the freeway for someone to claim, Moore recounted. "Like he was doing a service."

But instead of taking a freebie, someone passing through the tunnel bashed the screen to pieces. "There was glass everywhere," she said.

City officials say there are better ways to get rid of that scratchy TV. If people call in advance, city trash collectors will remove bulky items within a week. Those who can't wait that long can haul their old box springs to a city drop-off center in East Los Angeles.

Laziness might be one reason people litter, city officials said. When people are moving out of an apartment, it's easier to leave an old sofa in an alley than to arrange for proper disposal.

Catching the culprits is hit-or-miss.

When Moore and Joiner got to the tunnel, someone had already dumped a few mattresses and an old chair. After a couple of fruitless hours staking out the tunnel, the pair moved to another South Los Angeles block, and then to a Hollywood neighborhood with rows of apartments.

A homeless encampment at the South Los Angeles site was filled with old boxes and trash. Moore and Joiner were eager to catch people dumping in a nearby alley, a chronic source of neighborhood complaints.

No luck that night. A homeless person spotted the pair, so they moved on.

At all the spots they chose, the duo's methods were the same: Park and watch. Every car that slows a bit is a potential suspect.

It's a tiring routine. "You can sit here for hours before someone comes," Joiner said. "It's a good time to brush up on your story-telling."

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