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Beefed-up LAPD presence on skid row begins paying off

Areas have been swept clean of encampments, and crime is down 35% this month. Still, some ask if the commitment will be long-term.

January 27, 2007|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Just a few months ago, the southeast corner of 6th and San Pedro streets was a drug bazaar nestled amid cardboard boxes, tarps and tents.

It was a place where men and women in bedraggled clothes with leathery skin and uncombed hair hung out as a woman in a wheelchair slyly sold heroin to passing motorists.

Midnight Mission official Orlando Ward said he could look through his office window and see the decaying cardboard encampments stretching for three-quarters of a block, with some of their dwellers shooting up drugs in broad daylight with few consequences.

Today, all the camps on the block are gone, along with much of the drug dealing and violence that came with them.

Usually, Ward said, people slowly return after an area is cleared out.

But not this time. At least not yet.

Five months into the Los Angeles Police Department's crackdown on crime in skid row, there is little doubt that the neighborhood is changing.

Last year, the district that for decades led the city in drug crimes recorded an 18% decline in major crime -- more than 1,000 fewer incidents, according to LAPD figures.

So far this year, the drop in crime has accelerated. It fell 35% during the first four weeks of January, with 106 fewer crimes. The campaign has resulted in more than 1,000 drug arrests alone.

"In the last 24 hours we had one [serious] crime for the entire downtown compared with 22 crimes last year," said Capt. Andrew Smith, who commands the Central Division.

Among downtown residents and advocates for the homeless, there is consensus that the 50 extra officers the LAPD assigned to the district have improved the situation -- though they say the area remains mired in poverty, blight and drugs.

They also remain skeptical about whether the LAPD's commitment to the area is long term. They say they have seen crackdowns reduce crime before -- only to see it return when resources were focused elsewhere.

"Are we seeing and feeling a different level of crime on skid row? Yes. Have we turned a corner for skid row? I'd say it is too early to tell," said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., a business owners group. "To break the back of crime in skid row will require more than six months."

"Historically, the LAPD has hit a problem area hard and then moved on," Lopez said. "But it wouldn't surprise me if there are people staying away now because the streets are hot with police. But if those 50 officers go away, they'll be back."

Shu Kwan Woo, a co-owner of ABC Toys on San Pedro Street, said it was a major change from last year when even getting his company's mail delivered was a struggle because so many drug users and needles hindered postal workers.

"This isn't something cosmetic. The whole area is getting cleaner," he said. "This isn't about chasing away the homeless. This is about chasing away the street criminals and drug dealers so the true homeless can get the help they need."

City leaders have talked for years about cleaning up skid row, which has the largest concentration of homeless people in the western United States.

Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa committed last year to a significant police infusion and programs to help the homeless.

The push comes amid a rapid gentrification of downtown's historic core, which has seen a boom in condo construction and the conversion of old office buildings into upscale lofts.

Smith and other officials acknowledge that they are far from reaching their goals.

"We're not out of the woods yet," the police captain said. "We had a drug overdose death today and caught two gang members selling heroin balls. We are still fighting the battle every day."

Trees have been trimmed, lights fixed, sidewalks cleaned. Shelters have produced more beds, Smith said.

On Gladys Avenue in the heart of skid row, the homeless encampments and crime problem persist despite the show of police force.

Not everyone likes the LAPD's approach. Some activists for the homeless have accused the department of harassing transients and cleaning off streets for the benefit of new upscale residents.

Ward, of the Midnight Mission, said the crackdown had been a mixed bag for the homeless. Many think they are less likely to be victimized by crime. But some also feel anxious about the police presence. They all wonder if this is permanent.

"It is so far a temporary change of culture," Ward said.

richard.winton@latimes.com

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