Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

LIKE MANY RESIDENTS OF PUBlIC-HOUSING PROJECTS, people who live at San Fernando Gardens have had their share of setbacks and work a little harder for things others take for granted.

But the arrest last week of one of their security guards in connection with a drive-by shooting that injured a 2-year-old girl and two women have tenants worried about who's looking out for their safety.

Two weeks ago, Juan Lara, 20, a resident of the San Fernando Gardens and a guard there since last April, was arrested by LAPD officers who said they witnessed a shootout between Lara, a reputed member of Pacoima Project Boys, and two alleged rival gang members in the 11100 block of Glenoaks Boulevard, near the housing project. Lara has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and is being held on $4.2 million bail.

Police said Lara and a fourth man, Rafael Macias, who is still at large, were in their 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass when they came upon two men standing in front of a house. Police say shots missed the intended victims and struck the two women and toddler in a passing car. The two women were treated at a hospital and released. The toddler, hit in the chin and head, underwent reconstructive surgery.

The case has drawn attention to the safety problems plaguing the Los Angeles Housing Authority and its 22,000-plus residents. At a residents' meeting last Thursday, some 50 outraged tenants and LAPD officers called for more rigorous background checks and other reforms in the guard program, which they fear might be rife with gang members.

Paola Rangel, a community activist who works to organize residents, said housing-project officials and the police need to do more to protect residents. “Now a 2-year-old girl might end up with no chin because of you!” she said. “This will be up to your conscience. The Housing Authority needs to take action on this.”

Officials with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) would not comment on what if any changes they are considering in the hiring process. For the past two years the Housing Authority police force has dwindled from 61 officers to 41. They once kept trouble at bay, local residents say, but now the small force is unable to effectively watch over the 16 developments across the city. Unlike the Housing Police, the 14 security guards assigned to San Fernando Gardens are unarmed and their duties are mostly limited to protecting buildings, not responding to calls.

Both LAPD officers and Housing Authority officers who work in the San Fernando Gardens are perplexed as to how at least four prospective security guards ä could have managed to pass a screening test despite having gang affiliations, said LAPD senior lead officer Julian Almaraz. Last year, the City Attorney's Office even filed an injunction against the Project Boys, which made it a misdemeanor for two or more members to meet in “safety zones.”

Almaraz told the residents that his records show that at least four guards with gang ties have been arrested over the years on charges including assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft and burglary. He did not provide full details and said he did not know the outcome of the cases.

Celia Hoover, who oversees the guard program at San Fernando Gardens, said one of her goals is to hire as many residents as possible as guards. She said they all must pass background checks. “Some guards are students, others are housewives and we even have a college professor,” she says. “We have enough pressure from the gangs. And now that we are being accused of being a gang ourselves, is even more [pressure]. We just want to be left alone to do our jobs.”

Resident Filemon La Hoya said he is fed up with the gang violence. Now retired, he was no match for a group of gang members who recently beat him up as he returned home from a party.

“This is just not fair. Being beat up by four young men,” he said, showing bluish scars on his chest.

Complaints about the security guards have been ongoing. At a February meeting with residents, HACLA's assistant director Lucille Loyce said she was appalled by accusations that the guards had gang affiliations. Despite knowing of a guard who had a police record, she asked them: “Don't some people, even those who have had trouble with police, deserve a job?”

FROM SOUTH-CENTRAL TO BOYLE Heights to Pacoima, the housing projects, beset by drug sales and gang violence, sometimes go without patrols at night because of budget cutbacks. During the residents' meeting last week, many said they feared that they were becoming easy prey for gangs.

The police shortage has intensified longstanding frictions between HACLA's director Don Smith and its Police Officers Association, said Mike Duffy, the union president.

Housing officials said they can't hire additional officers because of a $350-million repair bill for its 60-year-old developments. In a 28-page report sent to the City Council, the Housing Authority suggested that responsibility for policing the projects should fall on the Los Angeles Police Department; the Housing Police should only be “supplemental” help.

LAPD officials say that they have been compensating for the Housing Police shortage. But Housing Authority Sgt. George Holt says statistics show that the LAPD has not filled the void. A 21 percent increase in all crime occurred during the first six months of 2001, with six homicides taking place inside the housing developments, one more than during the same period last year.

Sandra Obando, the leader of San Fernando Gardens Resident Advisory Council, has been a tenant for more than 20 years. An elected resident leader whose office wall is filled with dozens of decorations and awards for her community service, she takes pride in mustering help from city and housing officials.

But during the summer, the Pacoima-based projects went for three months without patrols from the housing police, Obando said. No one would listen to her at the housing authority, she said.

It was only after Councilman Alex Padilla stepped in that the usual daylight patrols resumed, Obando says. The LAPD does a good job during nights, but gangs have set a foothold and drug dealers have gotten smarter, often fleeing into the night when squad cars show up.

Over the past six months, the Housing Authority claims that they have made the San Fernando Gardens one of their priorities, assigning at least two full-time officers four days a week, 10 hours per day to the development and that it is listening to residents' concerns very carefully. Authority officers are working with LAPD Foothill Division police to quell problems.

Despite the police cutbacks, Almaraz says that he is hopeful that this renewed effort will bring an end to the violence in the San Fernando Gardens, including the nearby drive-by shooting: “This is something that could have been avoided.”

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