CityWalk in cops’ spotlight

Law enforcement making effort to stop gang crime before it starts

By Brandon Lowrey, Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 05/26/2008 10:51:21 PM PDT

UNIVERSAL CITY – In an effort to stop a gang problem before it starts, police who patrol Universal CityWalk are getting extra help over the next month to keep the San Fernando Valley hilltop tourist attraction safe as the popular summer season heats up.

For years, the restaurant, entertainment and shopping strip bordering Universal Studios has been the kind of place Los Angeles-area gang members have brought their girlfriends – but not their guns, police say.

But even though gang-related crimes remain a rarity at the neon-lit beacon, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has received extra officers from the California Highway Patrol to keep gangsters from taking root and declaring it their territory. They will patrol on weekends through June.

“Universal CityWalk and that area up there has got a gang presence but not a gang problem,” said sheriff’s Lt. Blaine Talmo, who oversees detectives at the West Hollywood station. “Everybody, including dummies, goes up there to see movies and things like that.

” … So we make it a point to ramp up our enforcement to set the tone and the tenor for the summertime.”

The funding for the extra officers comes from the California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention program, a state effort that uses grants and extra resources to help local agencies prevent and reduce gang problems in troubled areas.

The program is set to distribute about $48 million this year in state and federal funding to fight gangs – including programs to bolster police forces and provide education, job training and placement for at-risk youth.

About $7 million has been set aside statewide this year to pay for extra CHP officers to assist local law enforcement agencies – everything from regular patrols to traffic enforcement while local agencies are focusing on gang task forces, said Paul Seave, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s director of gang and youth violence policy.

Exactly how much of that will be spent on CityWalk is unclear. Officials keep that pot of money flexible so it goes to whoever needs it most, Seave said. And sheriff’s and CHP officials declined to say how many extra officers would be on patrol, citing safety concerns.

The CityWalk area is far from a hotbed of gang activity. Police there have reported only four gang-related crimes since January 2007. Of those, only one was serious – one suspected gang member carjacked another, Talmo said.

“If we see the bandannas out of the back pockets or anything that would indicate (gang membership), we make sure that we pay extra attention,” he said, adding that the Sheriff’s Department ramps up patrols every year around this time.

Lt. Ken Talienko, who oversees the sheriff’s substation at CityWalk, touted the measures the attraction already has in place.

The substation, which has a wall full of monitors fed by security cameras throughout the complex, also serves as headquarters for a cadre of private security guards. Armed, off-duty police officers hired by Universal also patrol the area.

And that doesn’t include the CHP.

Talienko said it isn’t overkill, it’s a necessary show of force. It’s a lot easier to keep gangs from taking hold of an area than it is to get rid of them once they’re there, he said.

“I’m not the kind of guy that puts up the fence after the cows get out,” he said.

Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michel Moore, who oversees the LAPD’s operations in the Valley, said gangs have plagued other regional entertainment spots, and law enforcement officials overseeing CityWalk should remain vigilant.

“It’s a gathering place for gangs throughout the region,” he said. “It’s a family-friendly location, a vibrant entertainment zone, but it can … draw a bad element that really drags it down” if not for strong security measures.

On Monday afternoon, a diverse group of families and teens crowded CityWalk, including Chris Jack, 36, who roughhoused with his two sons, 7 and 5.

Jack, who works at a county hospital, has witnessed the aftermath of gang violence firsthand. When asked if he’s seen similar problems at CityWalk, the San Pedro man was incredulous.

“Here, in Universal City? No. Usually there’s just lots of people around. Lots of kids, lots of moms and dads,” he said. “I haven’t seen anybody blatantly presenting themselves to be a gang member.”

Carly Martinez, 15, and her brother Ernest, 14, both of North Hollywood, said they spend a few days a week at CityWalk and have never considered it dangerous.

“This place,” Carly said, “has always been the most safe place for me.”

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