Capt. Nicole Alberca, the LAPD’s top Westside brass, battles a spike in crime

By Gary Walker

Capt. Nicole Alberca at the LAPD Pacific Division headquarters  on Culver Boulevard in Del Rey Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Capt. Nicole Alberca at the LAPD Pacific Division headquarters
on Culver Boulevard in Del Rey
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Like all Los Angeles Police Department division commanders, Capt. Nicole Alberca has had to confront an upswing in both violent and property crime during the first half of 2015.

From January to June, LAPD’s Pacific Division — an area that includes Westchester, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Del Rey, Mar Vista and Venice as well as Palms and Manchester Square —  took reports of 400 violent crimes, up from 272 during the same six-month period in 2014, according to Alberca.

Property crimes have also jumped up, with the number of auto thefts rising from 377 to 482 and thefts from vehicles increasing from 635 to 901, she said.

Previously in charge of Westside patrols, Alberca took over as the Pacific Division’s commanding officer this spring.

“We recognize that violent crime is up, and our goal is to reduce the fear and incidence of violent crime,” Alberca said. “We don’t find this to be an acceptable increase, but what’s important to note is that much of the increase was due to our January-February-March violent crimes, where we had multiple shootings. But since then violent crime has gone in a downward direction. We don’t have a crime epidemic or someone who is on a rampage or a spree.”

In the first half of 2015, aggravated assaults (defined as attempts to cause serious bodily injury, including cases of domestic violence) nearly doubled within the Pacific Division’s territory, rising from 127 from January to June of 2014 to 252 from January to June this year. Robberies rose from 127 to 142, but burglaries saw a slight (roughly 2% decline), Alberca said.

Six murders occurred within the Pacific Division’s boundaries in the first half of this year, but arrests have been made in half of them, including the alleged shooter in the Valentine’s Day slaying of Calvin Johnson in Mar Vista Gardens.

Venice Beach has logged a particularly sharp year-over-year spike in violent crime, she said, accounting for about 23% of violent crime within the Pacific Division from January to June of this year.

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who in January petitioned LAPD Chief Charlie Beck to deploy more patrol officers to Venice Beach, said the numbers were disturbing but not surprising.

“They underscore what I have said to LAPD brass for some time now,” said Bonin, who has praised Alberca for increasing the frequency of foot patrols on Venice Beach — even doing them herself once or twice a month.

Not ‘Our Homeless’ Anymore

In a conversation along the Venice boardwalk late last month, Alberca gave an overview of strategies she’s employing to reduce crime and what the public can do to help.

Alberca said a significant portion of violent crime on and around the beach can be attributed to a dramatic change in the makeup of its homeless population over the past several years.

“If you were to talk to some of our senior lead officers who have been in the area for a long time and our officers who work the boardwalk, they would tell you that these aren’t ‘our homeless’ anymore. The traditional, iconic homeless person that [officers] knew by name and who was pleasant by nature is disappearing. We’re really not seeing them as much anymore. Many of them have found housing and services through outreach efforts,” Alberca said.

“What we’re seeing now is a huge influx of teenagers to [people in their] mid-20s from different parts of the country who hear about Venice through social media and come here because the climate is very enticing and because of the easy accessibility of narcotics, especially marijuana. And that makes it easy to come here and hide under the cover of homelessness,” she said. “Some of the problems that we’re seeing, if not most of them, are the result of that particular group, often times against each other. One day you’re a victim and the next day you’re the suspect and vice-versa.”

Alberca said anecdotal data connects the aforementioned spike in aggravated assaults to this new population of homeless people drawn to Venice from other parts of the state and country.

The Venice Stakeholders Association, a group of residents suing city and county officials for failing to enforce outdoor camping restrictions and thus “maintaining a dangerous public nuisance on Venice Beach,” has argued that the homeless population is responsible for multiple crimes (including some well-publicized break-ins) against housed people living near the beach.

Alberca said she doesn’t have empirical evidence to substantiate the claim. Rather, “Most of the crime is transient-on-transient, with the occasional exception of a property crime where there’s an innocent bystander involved. For the most part, this particular group is victimizing themselves,” she said.

The LAPD typically deploys more officers to Venice Beach from April to September. Alberca declined to discuss deployment numbers or assignments in Venice except to say there are currently more officers patrolling the boardwalk area on foot or bicycle.

“I’m really to see glad that [Alberca] is very committed to the philosophy of having more foot patrols,” Bonin said, adding that he’s like to see the same on parts of Lincoln Boulevard and even in the Manchester Avenue / Sepulveda Boulevard area of Westchester.

Looking for Patterns

Alberca said her command team conducts a daily analysis of all crimes throughout the division from the previous day and compares them to three-day and a seven-day crime maps.

“We deploy our resources based on that. There’s a whole process that we do. We meet every day to look at the number of crimes in totality and determine where we should deploy our resources,” Alberca said.

During their daily crime analysis, police work to determine hot spots for particular types of crime and enact crime prevention strategies based on that data.

“What the community might not be aware of is that in addition to our uniformed officers we also often have plain-clothes officers who saturate an area from a surveillance standpoint. I can’t go into detail because it might compromise the practice, but a lot of things are happening behind the scenes that people don’t necessarily see,” Alberca said.

“If we have a burglary, we’ll look at all of the burglary reports in that particular district. If we have a grand theft auto, they may realize that a car was taken during the commission of a burglary to escape from the area. That’s how we can establish patterns and do what we call multiple clearances,” she said. “So when you make an arrest, you might be making an arrest for the burglary but we we’ll also be clearing a grand theft auto or other property crimes associated with the burglary.”

According to a six-month crime mapping analysis by the Los Angeles Times using LAPD data, Westchester saw a high number of property crimes between Dec. 15 and June 14 — especially of thefts and thefts from vehicles.

Those were also the highest-frequency property crimes in Del Rey and Mar Vista, communities with somewhat similar population densities.

Playa Vista and Playa del Rey, both considerably smaller communities than Del Rey and Mar Vista, saw fewer property crimes.

Marina del Rey, patrolled not by LAPD but by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, has not seen an increase in violent crime this year but is dealing with a rise in property crime.

“We’re still having problems with burglaries and bike thefts,” said Capt. Joseph Stephen of the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station, which also patrols View Park and Windsor Hills.

Over the first six months of this year, burglaries were up 7% and grand theft autos had increased by 11% in the station’s coverage area, Stephen said.

Deputies are conducting biweekly sweeps in the nearby Ballona Wetlands off Fiji Way, where deputies found evidence of a bicycle-theft ring last year.

“We go out there with mental health and homeless services professionals to see if we can help anyone who wants to get services or housing. We try to be as compassionate as possible, but sometimes we do have to arrest people who might have outstanding warrants,” Stephen said.

‘Holistic Approaches’

Gang-related crime accounted for 14.5 % of the violent crime within Pacific Division in the first half of this year.

“That’s higher than it was last year, particularly given the traditional feud between the [Venice-based] Shoreline Crips and the [Mar Vista Gardens-based] Culver City Boyz. There was a significant increase in shootings in [the public housing complex] Mar Vista Gardens this year, but we also made a significant arrest in the Valentine’s Day homicide there,” Alberca said.

The Pacific Division stepped up gang enforcement activities at Mar Vista Gardens following the shootings and launched a new community program called the Mar Vista Collaborative. The collaborative counts police officers, a neighborhood prosecutor from the city attorney’s office and Mar Vista Gardens residents among its membership and is intended to improve community relations with police as well as deter criminal and delinquent activity.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with our gang unit collecting [intelligence] to determine who is active and committing crimes in the neighborhood as well as conducting probation searches. So we’re hoping this and other holistic approaches will minimize the gang activity in the area. We’re also looking at mentoring and youth programs, and we’re hoping to see a buildout there and that it will be very impactful. We don’t want the residents there just to see us as an arresting force,” Alberca said.

Del Rey Neighborhood Council member Enrique Fernandez, who grew up in Mar Vista Gardens, said he hopes the new collaboration will succeed but worries there could be complications without more positive personal interactions between police and residents. He also feels that frequent changes in senior lead officer assignments could hinder the LAPD’s ability to foster long-term community bonds.

“We need the kind of youth programs that they have in other places in the city. And if you get to know the people in Mar Vista Gardens, they will learn to trust and respect you,” Fernandez said.

A New Partnership

Alberca is also spearheading the Venice Partnership, a group of volunteer community liaisons between Oakwood residents and police that convened in May.

Naomi Nightingale, a long-time community activist in the historically African-American Oakwood neighborhood, gave Alberca high marks for following through on a pledge made in 2012 by then-Pacific Division Capt. Brian Johnson to create a community relations board in the wake of the August 2012 beating of a Ronald Weekley Jr., a 20-year-old black college student, by officers with a special Venice boardwalk task force.

“[Alberca has] been very involved, and she’s made it a priority. She’s kept the community in the loop, and that’s commendable,” Nightingale said.

“The goal is to have a very sustainable, community-driven effort with a core group of citizens that works side-by-side with law enforcement to create public trust and talk about what the new face of public trust looks like. We’re looking to build a framework for this, and sometimes it’s hard to make it sustainable and stay engaged when there’s no crisis,” Alberca said.

Alberca was present with other LAPD and community leaders during the tense community meeting that followed the May 5 officer-involved shooting of unarmed homeless man Brendon Glenn outside the Townhouse Venice on Windward Avenue.

Nightingale said she too wants to make sure the Venice Partnership will survive past Alberca’s tenure and stressed the importance of repairing frayed relations between police and some residents.

“Trust is critical to a partnership like this with the Venice community. It’s up to the community and the police to put their best efforts forward. The inclusion of the community is important to good community policing, and I think this has the potential to improve public trust of the police,” Nightingale said.

Mar Vista Leads the Way

Mar Vista resident Rob Kadota, a co-chairman of the Pacific Community Police Advisory Board, says having a community that keeps a close eye on itself helps both police and residents.

“Mar Vista and Pacific have some active neighborhood watch groups, but there’s always room for more involvement of neighbors looking out for one another. While the police are a vital component to crime reduction, it’s really about neighbors knowing each other enough that they know when something looks suspicious and to call it in,” said Kadota, a former chair of the Mar Vista Community Council.

So far this year, Mar Vista has not seen the sizeable upswing in property crimes that other communities have, according to Kadota.

“Good, basic crime and safety things, like locking doors and windows, are really important. Most of the crime that’s happening is very basic stuff — entering unlocked homes versus picking locks or disarming security systems,” Kadota said.

Alberca has been a vocal advocate for expanding Neighborhood Watch programs.

“It can start off as just one block. One of the things that Officer Ruben García [a senior lead officer in Westchester] is doing is he’s using dog walker programs that function as neighborhood watch groups. So there are some very innovative things that you can do,” Alberca said.

“I really think we’re going in the right direction. We just need to keep moving forward. But I’m really hopeful that by the time we get to the end of the year we’ll begin to see a reduction in the number of violent crimes,” she said. “We won’t quit until we do.”