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New `eyes' help Valley officers find stolen cars

Ten neighborhood councils provide the funds to buy the LAPD three car-top digital cameras that trace and recover missing vehicles.

March 16, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Ten neighborhood councils in the east San Fernando Valley zeroed in on a big problem in their communities and found a way to solve it. No bureaucracy, no hassles.

They each chipped in thousands of dollars from their city-funded budgets and bought three $20,000 high-tech devices that when mounted atop patrol cars scan thousands of license plates, instantly alerting officers to stolen cars.

On Thursday, the groups gathered with Los Angeles Police Department officials to celebrate their first achievements: 10 stolen cars recovered since January in the Foothill Division; three more found with the suspected thief driving. In North Hollywood, 30 stolen cars have been recovered since December, and 10 others were identified with the suspect behind the wheel.

"It has worked tremendously well," said Mary Benson, vice president of the Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council. Sun Valley, with its many auto wrecking yards and dimly lighted industrial areas, has long been a prime area for "chop shops," garages where stolen cars are dismantled for parts.

"If we waited for there to be enough money in the budget for LAPD to install this equipment, I probably wouldn't be here speaking to you," said retiree Jon Eschbach, president of the Sun Valley council. "If there was money that came up that was available, they wouldn't start here, they would start downtown or elsewhere, and then they'd finally get to us."

The equipment uses tiny digital cameras, mounted on the roofs of patrol cars, to scan license plate numbers and compare them against state and federal databases of stolen vehicles, which are updated every day. The system alerts officers if they have passed by a car that's been reported stolen or used in a crime.

Police say the equipment has dramatically boosted their auto-theft efforts. Without the devices, officers have to manually type in the license plates of suspected stolen cars or respond to calls of abandoned vehicles.

Now they just drive around, and the computer automatically does the work at lightning speed.

The equipment arrived as police were seeing a recent uptick in auto thefts. There have been 1,510 auto thefts in the Valley so far this year, about 9% more than last year.

The North Hollywood Division is reporting the most auto thefts, 351 so far this year, and there have been 250 in the Foothill Division, Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore said.

Moore said that without the neighborhood councils pitching in, it would not have been possible to get the equipment placed in these communities so quickly.

There are about a dozen such cameras in the LAPD that have been purchased in the last two years through private funds, community groups and government grants.

The department also conducted a pilot project in 2005 and concluded that at least one device was needed in each division. Funds, however, have been difficult to come by.

Police and city officials congratulated the neighborhood councils and the Studio City business improvement district for making the donations, calling it an example of how the councils can improve services in their own neighborhoods.

"They really put the money where their mouths are," Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said.

The councils were developed in the late 1990s to give residents a bigger say in city government. The neighborhood councils have been criticized for infighting, poor community outreach and a lack of influence with key city departments, which limited their effectiveness.

Some councils have also been criticized for not spending their $50,000 annual allotment from the city quickly enough.

"A lot of that is because of the makeup of the neighborhood councils. You have mostly activists ... that tend to have problems agreeing on how to spend the money," said Cynthia Rodriguez, treasurer of the Sun Valley council, who coordinated the purchases.

"They don't understand if we don't start using it, they might lose it."

Rodriguez said that not only did the Police Department ask neighborhood councils for funding projects benefiting their communities, but the Fire Department has as well -- and she welcomes that approach.

"They're smart to do it. If they can keep it local, we're all for that," she said.

*

ron.lin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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