Whole Foods manager Richard Dinan was still talking to Laguna Beach police dispatchers, describing a shoplifter that had exited the store with more than $200 worth of groceries last week, when Detective Larry Bammer and a motorcycle officer showed up.
Bammer, who was reassigned to foot patrol that day, was right around the corner from the store when the call came in, close enough that he managed to apprehend the young woman before she fled.
Likewise, when a report came in last Saturday about a young man tagging buildings downtown with vulgar graffiti, a bike patrol officer got there in time to catch him.
Success at snagging suspected culprits of such nuisance crimes are in part due to the Laguna Beach Police Department’s recent decision to redeploy resources downtown, assigning a uniformed officer to foot patrol and a weekend bike patrol, said Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association.
Downtown merchants applaud reviving the foot-patrol beat, the domain of reserve officer Harold Griswold, who walked the beat from 1986 and until he retired in 1995 and whose shoes had not been refilled fulltime until now.
“He knew all the shop owners and locals who came to patronize the businesses,” said Capt. Jason Kravetz. “He truly was a community oriented person who looked out for the interests of all residents and visitors to our community.”
Building rapport segues into the foot patrol officer’s over-arching duty, preventing crime and ensuring public safety. Even as the uniform makes some people feel safer by proximity and may also deter would-be criminals, the officer’s ongoing dialogue with shop owners and workers about nuisances or petty incidents fills in knowledge gaps that can head off crooks. That sixth sense for things gone awry was a talent often attributed to the fondly remembered Griswold, who “usually showed up right when he was needed,” recalled Luke Solis, owner and manager of the Birkenstock shop.
Solis said the department’s efforts to reinstate the foot patrol already “has made a dramatic change” in his biggest beef, namely the “derelicts and drug users” that habitually congregate in a parking lot below his window.
More often than not, shopkeepers say they shrug off reporting minor disturbances or shoplifting of small items.
Even so, when Officer Darrel Short stepped out on foot patrol Monday and queried them in person, they had plenty of information to share that might prove useful down the line.
Short offered a friendly greeting to shop owners and workers, introducing himself to those who didn’t know him, and then gently probing about issues or concerns they might have.
“Once we say hello, that opens the doors to communication,” said Short, adding that the intent is to maintain visibility as a deterrent to thieves, to inform merchants that a patrol officer is accessible, and in turn, gather potentially valuable leads.
In every case the merchants and employees welcomed Short’s presence, and, when prompted, they all shared problems that most admitted they did not report.
At Hobie’s, Short talked to the saleswomen about their recent rash of shoplifters – girls leaving the dressing rooms with more clothes on than when they entered.
At Bushard’s, manager Marisa Jamison admitted that homeless people at the breezeway entrance deterred some customers. She said she appreciated having an officer stop in to chat since for this sort of issue, “I would rather not have to call.”
Coast Hardware worker Vincent Cunningham told Short about a vagrant who had been ranting angrily in front of the store and about a seemingly disturbed, and possibly homeless young man who would enter in a whirlwind, moving things around on shelves before stealing a candy bar and running out. Cunningham said he didn’t call it in because it was only a candy bar and the guy left so quickly it didn’t seem worth bothering the police about. But his description gave Short the impression he knew the young man. Now he will keep a closer eye on him and also be alert to his bothering other merchants.
Short’s rapport extends beyond just the merchants. Strolling though Heisler Park at Main Beach he exchanged pleasantries with Frankie Anthony, looking like a tourist enjoying the scene in a lawn chair with an umbrella. As a long-established member of the local homeless community, Anthony deplored the recent influx of what he called “travelers,” young homeless men just passing through who tended to be more aggressive and less respectful of others. Possibly a connection with the Coast Hardware invader?
Two civilian enforcement officers began patrolling on foot during business hours a few days a week on a trial basis last October, said Chief Paul Workman, who said he and City Manager John Pietig were exploring options to increase the police presence downtown and in adjacent areas. The transition to sworn officers began last month.
Though ideally the police union supports hiring a full-time officer to handle the beat, Bammer said he was encouraged by the city’s willingness to pay officers overtime to maintain a foot patrol presence nearly seven days a week. The department employs 47 officers, three down from its peak of 50, he said.
A “community based police department” was one of the top concerns voiced by council member Steve Dicterow during a recent City Council retreat to identify priorities to achieve this year. Reestablishing full-time downtown foot patrols is part of that initiative.
Chamber of Commerce president-elect Larry Nokes endorses the foot patrol as a good use of manpower that seems more neighborly. If the city can fund parking enforcement officers, why not foot patrols, he asked.
The new policy ties in with the City Council’s desire to improve customer service across city departments and give people a “point of contact” with police to answer questions or concerns, explained Kravetz. The foot patrol officer on duty will be able to provide selective enforcement in areas prone to “nuisance type” activities, including public drinking and soliciting, Kravetz said.
After Griswold’s retirement, the department deployed a two-person bicycle team to patrol the downtown area that, after only two years, was scaled back to summer only. The department hopes the foot patrol officer, coupled with the early deployment of the bike patrols this year (due to an increase in visitors prior to summer), will help target nuisance crimes such as soliciting, drunks, fighting and shoplifting.
Whether the department intends to make the foot patrol a staffed position, rather than paying officers overtime, has yet to be decided and will depend in part on an analysis of crime trends, Kravetz said.
The Police Employees Association would like to see two full-time foot patrol officers, especially given the influx of visitors expected from new housing developments in Irvine, Bammer said. Two positions would cost about $250,000 a year, he estimated.
If the expected influx underpins the rationale for the costly village entrance garage, Bammer pointed out, council members should also be concerned about ensuring safety for the growth in downtown visitors.
Photos by Edgar Obrand