Downtown L.A. is going through a growth spurt: New bars and restaurants open almost every week, lofts are filling with tenants and even young families heeded the DTLA call and have begun to set roots in the area. But there is one population that has gone largely unpublicized; sex offenders.
In Downtown's Skid Row alone, 359 registered sex offenders are on the books, said LAPD Sgt. Demian Wyma of the Registration Enforcement And Compliance Team (REACT). “My guess is there's nowhere else in the city, a six-block radius or whatever that is, that has that high a concentration,” says Wyma. Why so many offenders in gentrifying DTLA?
]The answer has to do with the city of Los Angeles' relaxed rules for where sex offenders can live.
Skid Row, Downtown's toughest but now changing neighborhood, has more offenders than many other entire LAPD divisions. It's got more than all of Hollywood, for example, and all of Rampart and all of the Northeast (Atwater, Eagle Rock, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Glassell Park, Griffith Park, Highland Park, Los Feliz, Mt. Washington) which measures about 30 square miles in size.
Looking at the broader picture Downtown, according to police, the Central Division, one of the LAPD's smallest geographic divisions, which includes most of Downtown, Skid Row and part of Chinatown, has 618 registrants – one of the largest sex offender populations in the city – and for one parent in the area, this is 618 too many.
“They shouldn't be allowed to live where their victims live,” said Natasha Aiello, who has a one-year-old daughter and lives in the Historic Core neighborhood of DTLA.
She said when she lived in Downtown a decade ago, the neighborhood's grittier qualities – such as crime and homelessness – weren't a major concern. But things changed once she had a child.
A quick search of the public sex offender website turns up hundreds of offenders in the area, and when Aiello found a few living close to a public park she frequented, she was horrified.
Besides having them too close for comfort, she thought their residency so close to a park was illegal – and in some cities and counties it is. But Los Angeles no longer has residency restrictions on most sex offenders, said Wyma.
Which means sex offenders in the city of Los Angeles are typically allowed to live near places like parks and schools.
And while this is a major concern for Aiello, many may not even be aware of the issue. Some that are say they're not too worried about it.
Alisa Rivera lives Downtown with her six-year-old son. She said she's “not thrilled of course” with the number of offenders in the area, but also doesn't feel threatened by them. Rivera said, accurately, that most sexual abusers of children know them, so she's more worried about her son getting hit by a car than attacked by a sex offender.
But if sex offenders can legally live almost anywhere in Los Angeles, why are there so many in Downtown?
Police said many offenders end up there because parolees and convicts often have few options when released from incarceration. Many head to Skid Row where there's a concentration of social services and “single room occupancy” hotels.
They're also in close proximity to the parole office where some may be required to make frequent visits.
Still others opt to live on the street so that their address (or that of the family member they're staying with) won't end up on the online public registry, as required under Megan's Law.
LAPD Officer Eddie Alvarez said this desire to melt away might be part of the reason many sex offenders become homeless.
“So basically they become transient, live in Downtown Los Angeles, the only way anybody finds them [under] Megan's Law is because they show up [with] a zip code as opposed to an actual address,” said Alvarez.
But homeless offenders don't slip under the radar entirely. If they don't have a home address, they often tell the officers which outreach missions they frequent, or corners they sleep at. Besides keeping tabs on them, there's not much the police can do to minimize the actual number of them in any one neighborhood.
“If we were to deal with it by attempting to lessen the number of registrants in downtown Los Angeles, we would probably drive a lot of people to not register,” explains Alvarez.
Police do outreach education at elementary schools and with community groups advising them how to safeguard kids from sex offenders. And although they field the occasional call from a concerned citizen who discovers a registrant nearby, Wyma and Alvarez said they haven't seen an increase in these phone calls in recent years.