For years, an empty lot in Van Nuys was gathering garbage, used appliances, old furniture and was a "home" for the homeless and their shopping carts. Distraught neighbors were constantly calling the police and city officials, but to no avail. As the years passed, the problem grew worse and the neighbors more agitated.
Then last March, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo launched the Neighborhood Prosecutors Program, assigning one veteran prosecutor to each of the city's 18 Police Department divisions. Some of the opponents were Jews, bringing with them the desire to fight for social justice. The idea of the project was for prosecutors to become involved with quality-of-life issues in the community before they got into the courtroom. Prosecutors would then team with LAPD senior lead officers, and work with city officials, neighborhood groups and various city agencies to address problems such as speed racing, prostitution, vagrancy, trash and graffiti.
Delgadillo believed that neighborhood prosecutors, working with the police, could bring about change more effectively than after a case had arrived on their desks. So far, he's been right. The program has been so successful that this past June, at an official ceremony in Watts, Mayor James Hahn unveiled the program's budget for the 2002-2003 fiscal year.
As for the empty lot, neighborhood prosecutors for the Van Nuys division, Liora Forman-Echols and Tamar Galatzan, were able to cut through years of red tape. "We sat down with everyone who had any kind of jurisdiction over that area, and asked, 'What do we need to do?'" said Galatzan, who was job sharing with Forman-Echols. "It took a lot of phone calls and involvement of several agencies, but the empty lot is now fenced and clean. No one before had been empowered to lock all the players in one room and say, 'Let's clean this up, because the community deserves it to be clean.'"
Both Galatzan and Forman-Echols knew immediately upon hearing about Delgadillo's project that it was something they wanted to try. Forman-Echols was the third generation of a Jewish family that had served its community -- her grandfather and father before her were both law enforcement officers.
When it came time for Forman-Echols to join the force, though, her mother forbade it: "Nice Jewish girls become lawyers," and so, she did. As a prosecutor, Forman-Echols found herself far from the community activism that she longed for. "In court, things are filtered down to us, but here was a great opportunity to do something different, in a direct way to help the community."
Last March, Forman-Echols signed on as the new L.A. deputy city attorney for the Van Nuys division -- a division that spans 40 square miles and has been plagued by many long-term community woes. This June, as she prepared for maternity leave, she handed the mantle over to Galatzan, who had been on leave to have a baby.
For Galatzan, this program has been a great opportunity to work proactively on quality-of-life issues and to return to her first love of community service.
"It's a great opportunity to work with a whole team -- law enforcement, chamber of commerce, homeowners association, neighborhood watch groups and business concerns -- to solve problems before they reach the level of prosecution."
As a team member, Galatzan explained, the deputy city attorneys must wear a number of different hats and be able to work on a grass-roots level, mingling with the community. Neighborhood prosecutors don't carry all the weight, but what weight they do, goes a long way. She's found since being on the job that the community has been overwhelmingly welcoming. "They're a little skeptical at first, but after seeing what we can do, they like having us there."
Angelenos, like Nancy Lamb of Venice, have been writing letters to the Los Angeles Times describing just how well the Neighborhood Prosecutor's program is working. "I was elated that someone in city government actually responded to my plea [about parking violations in her neighborhood] and took on the responsibility of fixing the problem," Lamb wrote. "Delgadillo should be commended for instituting such an innovative and effective program."
Even though Delgadillo initiated the program, he doesn't take all the credit, citing that the community has a part as well. "When you solve neighborhood quality-of-life issues, the people help you solve the bigger issues," Delgadillo told The Journal.
"I give Rocky Delgadillo an A for this program," Forman-Echols said. "He's passionate, committed and comes through. He realized the need for [neighborhood prosecutors] by getting this program up and running. It's been the greatest step in improving lives for all Angelenos."