n a community where one-third of the households live on less than $10,000 a year, police and other city leaders needed an innovative approach to improve the quality of life for El Monte, California. The police department could exert its leadership, but the effort had to be fully integrated with all city departments. Code enforcement, public works, parks and recreation, and building inspection departments all had to participate and embrace the concept of providing a better coordination of resources and delivery of service to El Monte's citizens to make any real impact.
Direct and indirect results from their effort have been impressive:
- 17.4 percent reduction in crimes against persons
- Sharp reduction in gang graffiti
- 21 percent reduction in transient-related calls for service, owing to aggressive enforcement of transience violations
- 35.9 percent increase in local real estate property values
The Impact (Improving and Maintaining Public Awareness and Community Teamwork) Program, launched in 2000, brings several city programs under one umbrella and is designed as a long-term interactive program connecting residents with the police and other city departments.
First There Was the Touch Program
One of the most controversial issues in regard to quality of life in Los Angeles County is the ever-growing population of transients. This has led to the creation of a well-balanced approach called Touch, which stands for Transient Outreach Using Community Hands.
In the Touch Program, an officer from each patrol shift was selected as a liaison to facilitate the exchange of information between the transient coordinator and the patrol team. Training was given to each liaison officer. The liaison officers then trained their peers on their respective shifts. This allowed the entire patrol division to participate in the Touch Program and gave 24-hour coverage to the city.
The goal of Touch was to help reduce the number of radio calls for service involving transients. In order to be successful there has to be an alternative for those transients who want help to get off the streets. A partnership was formed with Project Achieve. Project Achieve is an organization that has social services available for those transients who want help. Through the Touch program, officers have referred many transients to Project Achieve where they have received assistance to better their lives.
For those transients who did not want help and continued to be a public nuisance, several municipal ordinances were used, including the development of a new city ordinance prohibiting public camping within city limits. Quality-of-life crimes (urinating in public, drinking in public, public drunkenness) were aggressively enforced.
Another tool was forming an allegiance with the liquor storeowners to refrain from selling alcoholic beverages to known drunkards. A list of those transients who were known drunkards was given to local storeowners. Storeowners complied with the request and this campaign has been quite successful.
Letter of Agency was a new tool that that allows officers to make trespassing arrests based on prior written request by a property owner. This has proven to be one of the best long-term solutions for unwelcome transients. This proactive approach, combined with counseling and referral services, has greatly improved the transient problem.
As a result of the Touch, there has been a significant reduction in quality-of-life crimes involving transients, most noticeably downtown.
Impact Brings It All Together Top 10 Worst Properties:
The Impact (Improving and Maintaining Public Awareness and Community Teamwork) Program consists of dividing the city into 65 separate areas known as reporting districts, or RDs. An officer is assigned to each RD and that officer becomes personally responsible for improving the quality of life for those who live or work in that area. Officers develop long- and short-term projects to achieve this goal. A short-term project can generally be completed in less than six months, while long-term projects might take a year or more to complete. An example of a short-term project would be an officer contacting a resident to remove visible non-operative vehicles from a residence. A long-term project could be assisting the owners of a multiple housing unit to comply with city code where the complex is run down and dilapidated.
Police compiled a list of the top 10 worst properties and assigned an officer to each property to target specific problems at each location; this is separate from the regular RD officer-targeted properties. The criteria for such projects are that crime is present, there are multiple calls for service, or the property is completely rundown and in need of attention.
One property on the top 10 list was a house that was in very poor condition and in dire of need of renovation. There were abandoned vehicles on the front lawn and in the back yard. There were sofas on the front porch and in front of the garage in the driveway, soaked in water. The stench of mildew filled the air. Trees were overgrown and the yards were barren and covered in dirt. The tenants were gang members who threw parties on the weekends. Visitors were known drug addicts. Some were on parole and some were on probation. Drug dealing was prevalent.
The first police action was contacting the tenants to confirm who actually lived in the property and to determine whether the tenants were renters. Police learned that the tenants were a woman with her two nephews who happened to be hardcore gang members and drug addicts. The next step was to contact the property owner. The city's code enforcement department retrieved the ownership information and the police called the owner. The owner said he was afraid to make contact with the tenants because he feared retaliation. The owner had not collected rent for several months and didn't know what to do.
The eviction process was explained to the owner, and he was assured that police would support him and assist in the lawful eviction. In effect, the police department's role would be to keep the peace and give moral support. In addition, he was told that the police department would be doing gang and drug enforcement near the property. Cell phone numbers of gang and narcotic detectives were given to the property owner to use for immediate assistance.
When the owner presented the tenants with an eviction notice, a uniformed patrol officer accompanied him. This gave the tenant the impression of unity between the owner and police. The owner felt safe and confidant that the police were supporting his efforts and a partnership had been formed.
The following week, an armed robbery occurred down the street from the residence. Gang detectives quickly arrived and arrested two male suspects who happened to be the two nephews who lived at the residence. Parole agents assisted, as both suspects were on parole and had clearly violated their terms of parole. With the absence of the two nephews, the gang and drug activity dissipated. The owner was able to begin a major cleanup of the property. Code enforcement monitored the progress of the cleanup to ensure that the owner met regulations.
Neighbors were ecstatic and pleased that somebody actually cared enough to do something about the problems in their neighborhood. Several goals were met. The neighbors felt safer, the gang and drug problems were gone, the owners and residents gained confidence in their police department, partnerships were formed, and there was an effective use of resources. Outstanding results coupled with a dynamic response from all parties involved made this a successful joint venture.
Neighborhood Services Program: In this example, the RD officer was able to provide even greater assistance through the Neighborhood Services Program, an initiative that sends workers to perform repairs and maintenance work on houses for qualifying applicants. Under the program, the city of El Monte will purchase material (up to $5,000) and provide the labor free of charge to the resident.
The owner of the house in this case was running out of money and needed two giant trees removed from the front yard that were draping onto the residence and as into a neighbor's yard. Members of the Neighborhood Services Program came in and chopped down the trees and removed debris at no cost to the homeowner.
The RD officers are encouraged to locate and contact residents who quality for this service. Many of those who have qualified are the elderly, and it has been a welcomed benefit for deserving persons.
Accessibility of RD Officers
To make the officers more accessible to the public, each officer is issued a cellular telephone. City-issued phones are a necessity to bridge the communication gap between citizens and police officers on the beat. In addition, there is a separate voicemail phone number that is given freely to residents so that officers can address nonemergency, long-term concerns. Magnets with key phone numbers have been distributed to citizens and business owners. Their RD officer's voicemail is among the numbers on the magnet.
Brochures promoting the Impact Program are also handed out by officers responding to calls, during neighborhood meetings, and at every opportunity to expose citizens and business owners to the program.
One example of how citizens have taken to the program was a telephone call placed to a RD officer on his cellular phone. A citizen was worried because she saw foot traffic at all hours of the evening at her neighbor's house. The citizen thought this was strange and called her RD officer. The other peculiar thing that was mentioned was that the citizen saw a man holding a briefcase that was chained to his wrist.
The officer asked the gang unit to investigate. The investigation revealed a large-scale counterfeiting ring that was printing $100 bills and making counterfeit credit cards. Police confiscated ten large boxes of blank credit cards, computers and several printing presses and made several arrests.
The resident was also subsequently evicted. A collaborative effort involving the community and police helped find a long-term solution in this neighborhood. It also helped at least one concerned citizen feel a little safer.
Officers are empowered to use the resources in the city to research and solve problems. Officers not only look at crime-related issues but more importantly, those issues dealing with the quality of life. It has been well documented that when police and others address quality-of-life issues, the public becomes less tolerant of criminal activity and becomes a stakeholder in the improvement of a neighborhood. Officers are encouraged to form partnerships in the community. Officers meet regularly with the residents, coordinate with other city departments and police units, identify local crime problems, and keep their reporting district free of abandoned vehicles, graffiti, and other signs of blight.
Operation Sparkle: In March 2003 city officials launched Operation Sparkle, a citywide project that required members of the police department to organize groups of volunteers to participate in cleanup projects. Many of the cleanup projects were homes of elderly residents who could no longer maintain their properties due to failing health.
This event was well publicized in advance and produced hundreds of volunteers from local service clubs, churches, and schools. This project allowed citizens to become aquatinted with the Impact Program and their RD officer.
Since that successful event, five separate community-based groups have offered volunteer services asking members of the department to contact them directly to coordinate their response. One of the highlights of this project was the collaboration and teamwork exhibited by the other city departments. Code Enforcement, Parks and Recreation, Public Works, and Transportation all played vital roles in the success of a project that got the people from all over the city involved and working in unison on a project.
Citizens Academy: A most successful partnerships is the citizens academy. Patrol officers recruit residents and business owners from their respective RDs. The recruits are invited to attend the 10-week program that meets twice weekly to provide them with an in-depth look at all of the various aspects of police work. To date, there have been approximately 420 graduates from the program. At the conclusion of the program the participants have a good working knowledge of how the department operates.
Citizen Volunteers: From the participants of the citizens academy, participants are recruited for the VCAP (Volunteers Caring and Patrolling) Program. This program consists of 70 uniformed volunteers who assist the department by performing various functions such as vacation checks, assisting at the information desk, traffic control, transporting our holiday decoy units, and assisting the jailor with the booking of prisoners. This is just one of the ways that the police department invites the public to become an integral part of the El Monte family.
Another way that the department involves the community is that each RD officer identifies and develops block captains and area captains to assist them in their work within the community. These block captains contact, organize, and coordinate volunteers. Officers assigned to the Impact Program hold neighborhood meetings to answer questions, meet their residents, and assist them in long-term problem solving. Often, residents have approached RD officers to ask for assistance. This has alerted officers to those properties that are rundown, neglected, and havens for crime. The willingness of residents to reach out to police officers has helped make positive changes in the quality of life for all residents.
During Christmas and Thanksgiving, our police department and family members deliver Christmas baskets, food, and toys to more than 1,000 needy families in our community. RD officers also have neighborhood barbecues in their respective areas and involve local businesses and churches making these true community gatherings.
The police department has a strong tradition of collaborating with other agencies in gang prevention. This trend started in 1974 when the department began a joint project in partnership with local businesses and the Boys Club of El Monte. A focus of the gang prevention effort is job placement and training for gang members who wished to escape the gang culture.
Since that time, the police department has further improved its commitment to helping these residents by forming a partnership with Queens Care Hospital in Los Angeles, a non-profit organization. A tattoo removal program was instituted to help reform those gang members who want to better their lives for themselves and the community. This program offers free removal of visible gang tattoos to help former gang members become marketable in today's workforce. Since the program's inception, more than 500 people have been treated. One of the benefits of this program is that it allows patrol officers to get involved with individuals who really need help and are trying to get on their feet. Countless referrals have come from our patrol officers who have been asked for help from troubled citizens looking for a fresh start.
The El Monte Gang Unit works regularly with Los Angeles County Probation and State Parole as well as with the immigration and naturalization officials. These agencies participate in regular gang enforcement sweeps within the city. Often, the gang unit relies on intelligence from citizens and officers receiving information from residents. On many occasions, RD officers have received calls from citizens on their city-issued cellular phones and sent the information to the gang unit, which then made arrests and solved problems.
The results of this effort have been impressive. Through community involvement, innovative problem solving, effective use of resources, a well-balanced approach (prevention, intervention, suppression), and teamwork, the following results have been achieved:
- 35.9% increase in local real estate property values.
- 21% reduction in calls for service on transient-related activity.
- 78 separate graffiti vandals identified.
- Less than 25% of all graffiti vandalism is now gang-related.
- 876 at-risk youth have been identified and 279 have successfully completed the Touch Program.
- From March to December 2003, there were 24,000 documented citizen contacts resulting from the Impact Program.
- 17.4% decrease in crimes against persons (robberies, homicide, rape and assault) in 2003 as compared to 2002.
- A reduction of 5669 calls for service from 2002, resulting in a 7% reduction.
- From March to December 2004 the following clean-up efforts took place.
- 5,344 abandoned shopping carts were returned to stores.
- 915 abandoned vehicles were towed from city streets.
- 2,175 graffiti locations were painted over or repaired.
The results are encouraging but this is only the beginning. There is more work to be done. But the increasing cooperation among the police department, city hall, other city departments, and city personnel, and most importantly, the citizens, will continue having a positive affect on the quality of life for the people who live and work in El Monte. ■