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Volunteers roll up their sleeves to fight blight

Valley residents hit the streets to report graffiti, trash in an effort to counter gang activity.

July 08, 2007|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Officer Carol Sawamura and longtime San Fernando Valley resident T.J. Hunter didn't like the writing on the wall in a North Hollywood alley Saturday morning.

"It's graffiti," Sawamura said, adding that the walls had been vandalized by two gang-allied groups in the area, well-known simply by the letters "BLC" and "EV HMF."

Hunter quickly called 311 on Sawamura's BlackBerry and reported the location on Vanowen Street. Within 72 hours the graffiti would be painted over, the city promised, but the two weren't holding their breath that it wouldn't happen again.

"These alleys are like a giant blackboard for graffiti," Hunter said. "We try to get the graffiti painted over as soon as we know it's gone up. It sends the message that we're not going to roll over and tolerate it."

The two were among 50 San Fernando Valley residents -- mainly from the North Hollywood and Van Nuys areas -- canvassing south Valley neighborhoods for vandalism, graffiti or illegal dumping and calling 311 to report blight. City workers set a deadline of 48 to 72 hours for all graffiti or illegally dumped items to be removed after being reported by the group.

"We're sick of it, and there needs to be something done," Sawamura said, echoing what she has heard from residents frustrated by recurring graffiti marking up alleys, sidewalks and even some freshly painted, well-kept homes in North Hollywood, where she is a senior lead officer.

Sawamura said she and her colleagues have seen a direct correlation in the Valley between the rise of graffiti reports and a rise in gang-related activity.

In Los Angeles, cleanup crews removed 27 million square feet of graffiti in 2006, up from 21 million square feet in 2004, according to LAPD data.

And though gang crimes have been down this year in the LAPD's Central, South and West bureaus, they increased 16% in the Valley Bureau, according to police statistics. That follows last year's 43% hike in gang crime in the Valley.

"It's vital that citizens living in these neighborhoods call in where they see the graffiti and illegal dumping occurring so we can document it, and that will help build a case against the offenders," said Lucas Hamilton, senior lead officer of the LAPD's Van Nuys Division.

"Graffiti instills fear in residents because they know that wherever is tagged -- like a park or a playground -- is no longer theirs but is now occupied or owned by a gang or a group of taggers," he said.

Hamilton added that illegal dumping usually goes hand in hand with graffiti-plagued areas because dumpers "think no one is watching" and that, when gang activity occurs, it is much harder to locate evidence at a crime scene among dilapidated structures and trash-cluttered pathways.

Sawamura said Saturday's Operation Clean and Shine, coordinated by Councilwoman Wendy Greuel's office, helped bring together police officers, city government, residents and youth groups such as New Directions for Life to wage the "war on graffiti" the community declared earlier this year.

"Today's event and getting people to report any vandalism any time is basically a way of using community-based policing," Sawamura said.

That type of law enforcement, widely known from former Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis' innovative approach in the 1970s that was gradually adopted by other departments nationwide, centers on face-to-face meetings between residents and police in the form of neighborhood cleanups, town hall meetings and neighborhood watch groups.

Since the LAPD started focusing more publicly on Valley crime in the last few months, a dozen neighborhood watch groups throughout the south Valley have popped up, Sawamura and Hamilton both said.

Hunter, who has lived for 15 years in North Hollywood, helps lead one of those new groups as a block captain of the 3-month-old Welby Way Neighborhood Watch.

"We're starting to see results," Hunter said, pointing to repainted fences and walls as she and Sawamura made their way through a relatively clean alley just blocks from Hunter's home.

Sawamura said one neighborhood group tipped her and another officer off to the worst graffiti-marked and illegal dumping-plagued alley the two patrolled Saturday while canvassing North Hollywood neighborhoods.

Police said they thought the alley, between a Shell gas station and a line of houses at the intersection of Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard, has been neglected for at least five years.

When police went to the alley two months ago, they found a homeless person living in an abandoned strip mall amid bags of trash, human waste and rats. A gate has since been installed by the city, closing off the mall to public access.

On Saturday, the alley was still an eyesore, though, covered by rotting mattresses, urine-stained clothing and the stench of rotting garbage. A broken table and tree trunks were recently thrown right under a new "no dumping" sign the city put up.

"It can seem discouraging, but we're starting to see the community take the matter seriously and help out, even early on a Saturday morning," Sawamura said. "We thrive off their energy and are reminded why we need to keep working. It could be a 24-7 shift, though."

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francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

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