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Public Asks For Protection Against Retaliation From Drug Suspects

About 450 Southwest L.A. Residents Ask LAPD To Protect Those Who Report Criminal Activity

By Daniel Hernandez, The Los Angeles Times

Hundreds of Southwest Los Angeles residents who gathered at a community forum Sunday called on police to improve the officer dispatch system so that callers' identities could be protected against possible retaliation from drug suspects who live in their neighborhoods.

Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell of the Los Angeles Police Department told attendees that, under current policy, dispatch workers are not mandated to ask callers if they would like to remain anonymous when reporting drug activity.

Dispatchers must make what McDonnell called a "subjective" decision when advising patrol officers to visit a caller's residence. Often, community members complained, when patrol cars visit their houses after they call about drug activity, people in "drug houses" are tipped off to the call.

"There's a concern, and it's understandable," McDonnell said after the forum at St. Agatha's Church near La Brea Avenue in the Crenshaw district. "We're going to continue to work on it."

The issue was one of many touched on at the meeting, which was organized by the local branch of People Improving Communities Through Organizing. Known as PICO, the group is a nationwide network that promotes neighborhood betterment initiatives through work in churches and synagogues.

About 450 people attended Sunday for the largely bilingual forum, the second PICO meeting at St. Agatha's since December.

Police representatives, including McDonnell and Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, along with City Councilman Martin Ludlow, Rep. Diane E. Watson (D-Los Angeles) and other city officials, listened to testimony from people who included Rosal Bernal, 34, a Crenshaw resident who began noticing drug and prostitution activity at a neighbor's house more than a year ago.

In call after call, Bernal said, "the police never listened to us." And then, after the stench of cooking methamphetamines a few doors away became too much to bear, Bernal called police yet again. Officers went to her front door to interview her in person.

"I was scared. One wants to remain anonymous. One is scared enough as it is," said Bernal, the mother of an 11-year-old girl. "And then a month later, someone robbed our house. They took money, jewelry, cameras."

Bernal said conditions in their neighborhood have improved, echoing the sentiments of other speakers. Three drug houses in the neighborhood around St. Agatha's have been shut down, including the one plaguing Bernal's street, and authorities in the Southwest Division have appointed two drug-abatement officers to seek out and shut down "crack houses."

In addition, authorities have set up an anonymous tip hotline, although some speakers said they are unsure of the difference between the hotline and 911.

McDonnell said that under tight budgets and an overextended police force, it is nearly impossible to immediately respond to all drug calls. Revamping the dispatch system with callers' safety in mind will also take time, he said.

Community leaders said they were heartened by the response from police and city officials, many of whom promised to attend the next meeting at St. Agatha's in February to discuss the issues raised Sunday.

For Bernal, the disappearance of the drug house on her street is a sign to her that community involvement is effective. She said she had never been politically active before seeking out help to fight drugs in her neighborhood this year.

"I want to do this to make sure my daughter grows up in a safe and happy neighborhood," she said.

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