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Officials Grapple with More Reported Violence in Pico Park; Community Meeting Set for Monday

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

July 13 -- Despite a dramatic increase in police patrols, a woman said she was sexually assaulted in Virginia Avenue Park early Tuesday morning -- four days after a gang-related shooting only yards away from the scene of the alleged crime.

The woman – who police officials said was “extremely intoxicated” but speaking – was found near a pay phone at the recreation center inside the park around 6 a.m. by a custodian who heard crying, according to park staff, and stayed with her until police arrived, according to park staff.

The woman said she was using the pay phone when she was “sexually assaulted” by a Hispanic male, approximately 20 years old, who fled on a bike, police said.

Her alleged attacker has not been arrested and the woman was taken to a hospital where she was treated and released, police said.

Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. said Wednesday that police are still investigating what happened.

Despite, a banner newspaper headline calling the alleged incident a "rape," an examination revealed “no evidence of rape or sexual assault" and parts of her statement “could not be corroborated in the evidence,” Butts said.

“With every crime you work backwards with what you can prove,” said Butts. “It’s doesn’t mean there wasn’t a crime.

“We are looking at her statement and comparing it to what she said was around her” said Butts, who added that police are looking for evidence to see if she was perhaps the victim of another type of assault or crime.

The alleged attack stunned park staff who said they are still reeling from a gang-related shooting Friday night, when a 15-year-old boy police said has no gang ties was wounded in the park during a water break of a pick-up soccer game. (see story)

“We’re still trying to find out what exactly happened… but we are very concerned” said Scott Wasserman, human services administrator for the City who oversees the Pico neighborhood and park initiative programs, referring to both events.

Wasserman and other park staff have been conferencing with police; the director of the Community and Cultural Relations Department, Barbara Stinchfield, and the City manager’s office about the alleged assault and shooting, as well as two gang-related shootings that took place in the Pico Neighborhood last week. (see story)

“Safety at Virginia Avenue Park and all our parks is a top priority of the Council, police and park staff,” read a statement issued by the City Manager's office Wednesday.

“All the efforts of many partners to address the root causes of violence and to prevent violence are moving forward in our community and the police have an increased presence in Virginia Avenue Park and the surrounding neighborhood.

“Families, youth, seniors -- people of all ages -- are continuing to enjoy all the park has to offer, in a safe and secure atmosphere monitored by park rangers, park staff and police.”

Police officials, for now, say there is no evidence that connects any of the crimes, which appear to be isolated incidents, but have promised an “overwhelming police presence” throughout the Pico neighborhood and inside the park.

“The cycle of violence that has developed over the last week will not be permitted to continue,” said Butts in the statement issued Sunday.

Butts said Wednesday that he plans to step up foot patrols this weekend inside the park “during peak hours” of operation and at night, but that he does not have the resources for round-the-clock enforcement.

In response to the recent violence, park staff and Virginia Avenue advisory board members said they will hold a community meeting Monday, July 17, at 7 p.m. at Virginia Avenue Park. A police representative will be present at the meeting, they said.

Among the topics discussed will be the “protocol for police to approach youth inside the park” and “how to have police best communicate information to Pico neighborhood residents” when a shooting or other violent incident occurs, said Advisory Board President Florence Benjamin.

“When something happens, we want to avoid rumors and neighbors talking to each other and getting the wrong information,” said Benjamin, who was walking the park grounds late Wednesday morning with Wasserman.

After Friday’s shooting, Benjamin said she was surprised to find out about the shooting, not from police or park staff, but from a newspaper.

At least one other advisory board member, Wes Terry, said the reason members were not informed was because the shooting took place at the start of a weekend, when many of the park staff and police were not present.

Though members of the Pico Neighborhood Association and Pico Youth and Family Center – which works with at-risk youths in the Pico neighborhood -- have for years been critical of the community policing model in Santa Monica, others say it works. (see story)

“I think the police are doing a great job and lines of communication are wide open…and they are one of the best, and most professional, police forces in the country,” Terry said.

Other members, such as Benjamin, were less enthusiastic

“When need to know more about, not just the good, but the bad and the ugly.” Benjamin told The Lookout Tuesday. “We know where we live, and we know what goes on here like the drug dealing and gangs.”

How best to keep the community in the loop, but not compromise Police investigations will be something the community will need to discuss at the meeting, she said.

Also discussed will be how to maintain positive relations between police and teens who visit the park, while keeping an eye out for trouble, especially from teens who may be armed, Benjamin and Wasserman said.

“It’s hard, but we need to strike a balance of rigorous enforcement, and on the other side, appropriate interactions, such as coming up and simply asking, “Hi, how are you,” Wasserman said.

Wasserman said police at the park are up to the challenge.

Calling them “youth specialists,” Wasserman said officers assigned to the park participate in park programs, such as a boxing league, and know the kids who hang out at the park on a first name basis.

“The Police Activities League (PAL) works with youth who come here, and that’s the type of positive interaction we need,” he said.

With the recent violence around and inside the newly renovated park, which the City has pumped $13 million into enlarging, much is at stake, including the park’s reputation.

From park advisory board members to the police chief to park staff and City officials, one message is clear: No one wants the recent events to mar the reputation of the park which serves hundreds of families and kids each week.

“This is a local neighborhood park, in the center of the Pico neighborhood,” Benjamin said. “We don’t want to have to drive to (another park in town) because we feel unsafe.

“We’re not going to stop taking our kids there,” she said. “I’ve worked for three years on this park, and I’ll be damned if going to crawling with police every time I go there.”

For more information on the community meeting hosted by the Virginia Avenue Park Advisory Board Monday, call the park’s front desk at 310-458-8688.

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