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An 'electricity police' plan: Los Angeles


March 27, 2001
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An 'electricity police' plan: Los Angeles

By Mai Tran
The Los Angeles Times
March 26, 2001

(Los Angeles County, CA) - In Buena Park, police are distributing fliers to merchants urging them to dim their lights at night. Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies are paying friendly visits to stores illuminated with unusually large amounts of decorative lighting. But elsewhere across Southern California, officers are resisting the role of "power police."

It's been a week and a half since Gov. Gray Davis' order requiring businesses to cut power use during the energy crisis took effect, and enforcement of the rules has gotten off to a decidedly uneven start.

While some police departments are beginning to look for power scofflaws, others are balking at Davis' call that authorities monitor electricity usage and even issue citations to businesses that refuse to cut their power.

"It would be a nightmare to become electricity police," said Orange Lt. Bob Green. "How do you know who to cite? You'd have to find the property owners or the business owners. You can't just cite the janitors who are there to clean."

The executive order--which requires businesses to reduce lighting 50% during off hours, backed up by possible fines up to $ 1,000--went into effect March 15. But some police departments say the rules are so vague and seemingly unenforceable that clarification is needed before they can act.

The goal of the order is to reduce power demand across the state. But Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman Hayley Purece said her agency has decided not to enforce the order at all because the city gets its energy from the Department of Water and Power, which isn't plagued by the power shortages of other utilities.

Other officials had mixed opinions about asking merchants to dim their lights, noting that a police mantra for years has been that installing lights in dark areas can reduce crime and blight.

"If someone is having vandalism problems at night, they'd want to have lighting," said John Poole, code enforcement officer for the city of Anaheim. "Certainly, some things can be considered excessive, but most of it would be subjective. . . . How do you determine if they're using excessive lighting?"

Davis' program aims to educate businesses on ways to conserve energy and is designed for police to issue citations only in the most egregious cases, said the governor's spokesman, Byron Tucker.

"We don't want to issue citations. What we want is to make sure the businesses are aware of this energy challenge and make sure they do their part to get through this period," Tucker said.

Some police agencies are beginning education efforts. The Orange County Sheriff's Department has set up a Web site explaining the rules to merchants. Officials in Buena Park are getting the message to the community by passing out fliers to the city's Chamber of Commerce.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is having deputies talk to merchants if they notice an unusually large number of decorative lights in their stores or businesses. No citations have been issued so far by that agency, nor were any reported in Orange County.

"Our stance is to be that of the educator to help them comply," said L.A. sheriff's deputy Ray Lam. "It's not something that we're going to go out with voltage meters to check it out unless it's lighted like a Christmas tree."

Other departments are still trying to figure out what to do--if anything.

"We're caught in the middle because you certainly have to have this be a priority," said Santa Ana Police Sgt. Raul Luna. "However, officers are not electricians. We don't know which bulbs are electricity-efficient and which ones are not."

Next month Luna and another Santa Ana police official will work the night shift to drive around the city and look for "problem" spots. They plan to remind merchants when needed but won't hand out citations.

"We can write a ticket, but the key is whether the courts will uphold the conviction," Luna said.

At the same time, some police officials worry about the safety and crime message they are sending to merchants. Some car dealers, for example, have balked at reducing their wattage for fear it could make vehicles a more tempting target for thieves.

"You can't just turn down the signs and lights at a place like the Block" shopping mall, said Green of the Orange police. "You're asking for auto thefts, fights, vandalism and more crime at a place that's supposed to be safe and friendly for families. It's a double-edged sword."

Despite these concerns, some businesses say they are trying to do their part. Crevier BMW in Santa Ana has its computers, copy machines and fax machines on energy-saving mode--if employees don't use them in five minutes, they automatically shut down. Seven sparkling sports cars sit in the showroom, where spotlights were dimmed by nearly 70%.

"It's serious enough where everyone needs to do their part," said David Bunnell, sales manager.

Copyright 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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