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Police cameras' view fading

After initial success, a lack of maintenance on MacArthur Park units may be linked to a rise in serious crimes.

January 16, 2008|Andrew Blankstein and Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writers

Three years ago, the Los Angeles Police Department installed surveillance cameras in MacArthur Park, leading to a significant drop in gang activity and drug dealing in an area long considered a hotbed of crime.

But as the City Council today considers adding new cameras near the park, police officials concede that much of the existing equipment isn't working and that they don't have the money to properly maintain it.

"Some of the cameras work and some do not," said LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz. But the department will continue to build on the overall success of the program, he added.

Police data show that crime in and around the park at Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street began to rise last year, but some officials say better functioning cameras could help combat that trend.

The LAPD's failure to keep the cameras operating underscores the flip side of the police seeking private donations -- a practice encouraged by Chief William J. Bratton as a crime-fighting strategy. The MacArthur Park cameras were purchased for more than $100,000 with money from private businesses as well as from a government grant.

Bratton has welcomed donations of money and equipment to help with specific projects. Such donations have helped pay for mobile fingerprint technology, predictive crime software and T-3 mobile scooters.

The cameras "were really a pro bono project and it required money, but those cameras have never been supported by city funds," Diaz said.

Despite problems, the cameras have been an unqualified success in helping reduce crime and reclaim the park for residents and families, Diaz said.

Department officials say that over time they have not had the funds to maintain donated technological equipment, such as copiers, printers, computers and security cameras.

Problems extend beyond the ability of cameras to pan the area. There have also been glitches with equipment that records and stores video images. Such data can be used as crucial evidence in securing convictions. In the case of the Rampart Division, data storage lasts only 12 hours before it is recorded over.

Rampart Division Capt. John Egan said that there have been technical glitches with the cameras, but that his department works as fast as it can to resolve the issues.

Despite the glitches, Egan and other police officials say the cameras are a needed deterrent and a valuable tool for fighting crime in the area.

The LAPD could not say how many arrests have been tied to the cameras in the years they have been in operation.

Officials said that between 2004 and 2006, crime overall in and around the park decreased. But according to LAPD data, serious crimes in the area increased in 2007. Assaults rose nearly 90%, from 29 to 55. Auto thefts were up 26.5%, from 34 to 43; robberies jumped 49%, from 51 to 76.

Diaz said that MacArthur Park takes up half of the area represented by the statistics and that the crimes may be taking place in the heavily gang-occupied neighborhoods surrounding it.

But some police sources say they are concerned that gangs have reestablished a foothold in the park.

"I'm completely taken aback by this," said Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes MacArthur Park and who is spearheading the push for $150,000 to add six new cameras to the 6th Street Corridor. "The word to us is that they were working."

Reyes said he was told by police officials that crime had been decreasing in MacArthur Park and that no one informed him there were problems with the surveillance cameras and about the rise in violence.

Reyes said Tuesday that he would find funds to maintain any necessary broken or disabled cameras in the park, but that the new cameras along 6th Street would be maintained by the city's General Services Department.

Reyes said he would also ask the LAPD for a full status report on the condition of the cameras in and around the park.

The councilman first began publicly talking about adding cameras to the corridor last spring. The shooting last fall of a 23-day-old infant who was killed when gunmen opened fire in front of hundreds of weekend shoppers near MacArthur Park gave Reyes the political weaponry needed to ask for more surveillance cameras.

"The unfortunate tragedy was like a highlight. It amplified what we already knew was happening, but it took this tragedy to bring this kind of focus," Reyes said.

When the cameras were placed in MacArthur Park in March 2004, there was a noticeable decrease in crime around the area, he said, attributing the recent increase in violence not to broken cameras, but to "too much success" in reducing crime.

Reyes said that in the last three years, when the LAPD's Rampart Division began driving down crime, officers were periodically reassigned to other areas with higher levels of violence.

That makes it difficult to maintain a steady level of success, he said.

Norm Langer, who owns Langer's Delicatessen on South Alvarado Street, said the cameras "have had some difficulty" but were helping the area's police tackle crime.

Langer, who serves in an advisory role to local police, said he believed LAPD officials in Rampart were more focused on building their new police station than on spending thousands of dollars on the cameras' repairs.

Assistant Chief Sharon Papa said that over the past several years the department has encouraged its commanding officers to come up with creative approaches to crime reduction against the backdrop of limited funding.

Now, she said the department needs to take what it has learned and implement more standardization.

"The cameras obviously have allowed us to be more efficient and to police smarter," Papa said.

"Now, we know their value but have to take steps" to support the program, including appropriate budget requests, staffing and maintenance, she said.

--

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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