In recent years, a stream of violent incidents in Downtown Los Angeles has sparked community meetings and calls for more officers on the streets. Now a group of local residents is seeking to further raise awareness and get involved in the response.
In October, a group of business owners and residents came together to form WatchDTLA, joining another group, DTLA Strong, that has been pushing to get more police officers on the streets. Although neighborhood watches are nothing new, WatchDTLA differs from past similar bodies by a near constant social media presence that draws attention to criminal activity.
The group emerged from a September town hall. The discussion involved providing insight on ways to report crime, as well as other public safety concerns.
Shawn Smith, a Historic Core resident who helped found WatchDTLA, said the goal is to increase awareness about crime trends and provide tips such as contact information for Senior Lead Officers — LAPD members who work closely with specific neighborhoods — and Business Improvement District safety patrols.
“I saw that people were highlighting the issues and complaining about the issues, and some people were upset about certain things, so I started sharing on that forum and was trying to be solution-based and positive,” Smith said. “Pointing a finger is really important to highlight an issue, but you shouldn’t just point a finger. You should lift a hand.”
The group initially focused on Smith’s Spring Street apartment building, but has expanded to the greater Historic Core. Smith said residents from outside that neighborhood are joining in increasing numbers.
Concern has been sparked by a few troubling incidents. One occurred in June when a homeless man swung a piece of plywood with a nail protruding out of it at a Downtown resident; the LAPD said it was an unprovoked attack.
Smith said that the largest increase in members came after a Dec. 5 incident, when Albert Davtyan, the owner of Albert’s Tailoring on Eighth Street, was pushed in front of an oncoming truck by a transient. The attack was unprovoked and Davtyan suffered serious injuries. The assault drew national headlines.
The watch’s Facebook group has about 300 members and there have been five in-person meetings, including one on Jan. 29 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center that drew about 30 people. Attendees included multiple Downtown SLOs and representatives of several business improvement districts.
WatchDTLA is emerging as crime is rising in Downtown. The LAPD’s Central Division, which covers Downtown, reported a 6.1% spike in serious crime in 2018 in the area over the previous year. Crime has risen for five consecutive years in Central.
Property crime has surged in that time, with a particular spike in thefts from cars. In 2018 Central Division recorded a total of 5,517 property crimes, up from 4,877 the previous year. In 2014, there were 3,240 property crimes.
SLO Mike Flanagan, who patrols portions of the Historic Core, keeps in regular contact with the group’s organizers and has fielded reports and crime tips from members.
"We can’t do it all by ourselves, said Flanagan. “That is the main message that we’re trying to get out.”
Flanagan said the majority of the calls he receives are about drug sales. The group had been particularly active in reporting suspected dealers loitering outside of the CVS at Seventh and Spring streets. Flanagan said the resulting activity by police prompted the group to move to Seventh and Main in front of the Dearden’s building. But the calls have kept coming, and the police have continued to respond.
On Twitter, newly appointed Central Division Commanding Officer Scott Harrelson noted that three people were arrested for drug-related crimes at the corner.
“We heard the complaints of blatant and aggressive drug sales on the area of Seventh and Main, and your [LAPD] narcotics officers took action,” the Jan. 10 post said.
At last month’s meeting, SLO Jamilah Jones-Linton, who has worked closely with Smith, said 41 arrests were made in the area bounded by Broadway and Sixth, Eighth and Main streets from Jan. 1-29. She said that information gathered by the group was passed along to officers, which allowed police to formulate a response.
Flanagan, who patrolled Downtown Los Angeles in two separate past stints, said that he has not previously seen this level of involvement from community members.
“They are trying to do anything they can to help keep the community safe, and I’m going to do anything I can to help support them,” Flanagan said.
Kirk A. Gaw, who in the past operated a different crime watch group with Flanagan, and helped get WatchDTLA off the ground, said that the visible crime in the area has made locals increasingly receptive to an active neighborhood watch.
“In the past, I never noticed people being involved like they are now,” Gaw said.
Other neighborhood watches have formed in Downtown in the past, only to fizzle out. That included a 2008 effort in the Little Tokyo/Toy District area, and a 2003 effort in the Historic Core that was built around neighborhood walks with community members and police officers.
The most recent effort was in South Park, where the community’s Business Improvement District last held a neighborhood watch meeting in June 2017. Ellen Rioto, executive director of the South Park BID, said in an email that the watch was terminated due to poor turnout, and that the organization has shifted its focus to supporting groups including WatchDTLA and DTLA Strong. The latter group, led by Sara Hernandez, a former staffer in the office of 14th District City Councilman José Huizar, has been circulating a petition for increased LAPD foot beats Downtown.
Rena Masten Leddy, executive director of the Fashion District Business Improvement District, attended the Jan. 29 meeting. After the event, she said the emergence of groups like WatchDTLA and DTLA Strong shows that people are growing increasingly concerned about public safety.
“The big point right now is that there are now two organizations, two residential groups, that have taken it upon themselves to volunteer because they are worried about public safety in Downtown. I think that says a lot about what is going on,” Leddy said.
Smith said that the goal is to expand the group to more Downtown neighborhoods and to hold more frequent meetings. At the Jan. 29 event, he also reiterated that the purpose of WatchDTLA is to be visually active but not physically involved — the mission, he said, is to relay information to the community and the LAPD, and not to try to stop a crime. The latter is the job of police.
©Los Angeles Downtown News 2019