A portion of Northeast Los Angeles is in transition, not only because its city council representative is termed out and the local neighborhood council is reorganizing, but also because there is a new captian in charge of the local police station and an important community liaison position will likely remain vacant for some time.
Cypress Park, a mostly Latino, blue-collar neighborhood located adjacent to the Los Angeles River, was once known nationally for its violent gang activity. In 1995, the murder of three-year Stephanie Kuhen and wounding of her two-year-old brother outraged people across the country. Gang members had opened fire on the family’s vehicle after they mistakenly entered the gang’s “territory,” according to news reports at the time.
Today, crime is down in Cypress Park and the city as a whole. Some of the neighborhoods adjacent to Cypress Park have seen a rise in property values; neighborhoods like Glassell Park which was recently named among the 10 “up and coming” areas by the real estate blog Redfin.
While the city and police department took several measures to prevent and suppress gang activity and crimes in the area, including the creation of the Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD) program and the nearly doubling of the police presence in the area in recent years, the reintroduction of Senior Lead Officers (SLO) to the area was perhaps one of the most important steps taken, a it created a link and fostered communication between the community and local police.
But that link now appears to be in danger of being severed.
SLOs monitor crime trends in their designated areas, work with Community-Police Advisory Boards, provide crime statistic information to community groups and take in feedback from concerned residents.
Senior Lead Officers (SLOs) are permanently assigned to their neighborhoods. The position is a promotion, and comes with a bump in pay. However, due to budgetary restraints, two of the eight SLO positions in the Northeast Division are currently vacant, and could remain so for some time.
Two officers were temporarily assigned to fill the void created when two SLOs retired in February and others asked to be reassigned to a different community. Officer Adam Mezquita is serving as the interim SLO for Cypress Park, Glassell Park and a portion of Mount Washington, while Officer Fernando Ochoa is the temporary SLO for the northern end of Highland Park, roles that could last no more than two months, according to Northeast area LAPD Captain Jeffrey Bert, who took over the command of the division earlier this month.
According to Bert, the two SLO positions will remain vacant for an undetermined amount of time due to budgetary restraints. Senior Lead Officers earn a five-percent bonus as salary advancement.
“…We can put a person acting in that capacity but only for a certain time because we can’t afford to pay them, but by law we have to pay them. I know it’s a priority… and strive to get some of those pay raises back,” Bert told EGP, adding he hopes to keep the senior leads where they are and someday promote the most motivated officers into the vacant posts.
According to LAPD policy, officers can serve in interim SLO positions for 56 days before triggering a mandatory pay increase. Bert, however, said he has not yet received direction from his bosses to move or replace Mezquita or Ochoa.
Bert’s not sure when or if funding for the positions will open up, since those decisions are made by L.A.’s Chief Accounting Officer.
“Every single community, without a doubt, needs an SLO,” Bert said, explaining other divisions across the department are facing the same issue of filing positions left vacant by retirements.
In the past four weeks, there have been 18 Part One crimes — violent crimes and serious property crimes tracked by the FBI — in Cypress Park. Bert said the area along Huron and Figueroa Street, near the juncture of the 5 and 110 freeways has seen the most crime, mostly in the form of nighttime burglaries.
There were also four aggravated assaults, one of which appeared to be gang related, Bert said. But there were no murders, rapes, or robberies during that period, he said.
Part One Crimes are down this year compared to the same time last year (Jan. 1 to March 23), he said. So far, there have been 10 aggravated assaults, 4 robberies, 16 burglary-thefts from vehicles and 14 grand thefts, he said.
Most of the car-related crimes occur at night by people who want to sell I-pads, I-pods or other expensive items left in cars in order to maintain their drug habit, he said. Distracted pedestrians are also targets for thieves who want small items like wallets and I-phones, he said.
Cypress Park residents and activists Alexia Teran and Rory Olson, say they are pleased with SLO Mezquita’s work and like having an SLO who will listen to their concerns, such as those regarding a Medical Marijuana dispensary on North Figueroa they say is becoming a public nuisance.
“People are coming in and out … giving marijuana to kids on the street [near Nightingale Middle School],” Olson told EGP, noting that parking has also become a problem for local businesses.
Bert told EGP he has heard the complaints, and “LAPD is paying attention to the medical marijuana shops still open, both in terms of legality and the crime around it.”
“The chief complaint is loitering kids and the anecdote that patients are buying marijuana and reselling it to others who don’t have medical marijuana cards,” Bert said.
The Loreto Bridge, a pedestrian walkway over the 110 Arroyo Seco Parkway that connects Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights, is also problematic, according to Teran and Olson.
They say students need to use the bridge to get to Loreto Elementary School, and others use it to go back and forth between Cypress Park and Lincoln Heights.
“The problem is that sometimes illegal activities take place on the bridge and it’s not always easy to monitor that,” said Teran and Olson, noting it is something people complain about regularly.
“The police do patrol sometimes. The Council Office is aware, is trying to assist,” Teran said, adding the problem has existed “since the beginning of time.”
Maggie Darret-Quiroz, an active member of the Glassell Park community, said she was aware Mezquita was assigned on an interim basis, but adds she doesn’t want to see officers “shuffled around” in that role.
Darret-Quiroz says community participation is an understated contributor to the lower crime rates: “As soon as someone hears something, we call our SLO,” she said. “We need to find a way [to fill the SLOs positions permanently].”
Darret-Quiroz is the co-founder of the Glassell Park Community Garden, located on Drew Street where a gang den once thrived. City officials, who a few years back declared the site a nuisance property, cleared the plot to make room for the garden.
Darret-Quiroz told EGP she does not want to see community victories against crime and gangs compromised due to the non-promotion of an officer to the permanent SLO job.