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A Welcome Return

By Jorge Casuso

November 15 -- It was a homecoming of sorts for Sgt. Ken Semko when, in September, he took the helm of the 17-member force that polices the Downtown.

Twelve years ago as a rookie cop, Semko had walked the Third Street Promenade, where the only night-time crowds gathered at the two watering holes on the newly fashioned walk street.

“A lot of the crowds were concentrated at the south side of the Promenade because of the bars,” Semko recalled. “The stores closed early. A lot of what you had open was the food places.”

Much has changed in a dozen years. The struggling strip has become a booming success that draws some 10 million visitors a year from across the world, and the nighttime crowds are so thick officers often can't ride their bikes.

“It's constantly incredibly crowded,” Semko said. “The crowds aren't just bar and restaurant oriented, there are shoppers as well, so it's a well-rounded crowd.”

With the officers cruising on bicycles and walking the beat, a new rapport has been built up with the merchants and visitors that flock Downtown.

“We're actually walking amongst the patrons and merchants, so we have a lot of social interaction,” Semko said. “People are not so intimidated. We speak with a lot of people we wouldn't get to talk to if we were in cars.”

But if much has changed, some issues Semko addressed as a young officer are still at the forefront – monitoring street performers, dealing with the homeless, addressing merchant concerns.

“There were homeless issues back then that weren't much different, although the management issues have gotten a lot better,” Semko said. “There weren't as many performers.”

The tool box Semko and his squad – six police officers and 11 community service officers – have at hand has expanded. There are set rules for street performers and ordinances that have helped curb some of the problems with the homeless who hang out and sleep Downtown.

“The laws governing the performers weren't in place,” Semko said, referring to his early days on the beat. “There weren't any steadfast rules to enforce. There was a lot of arbitration back then, talking to them (performers) and getting them to get along... A lot was done by compromise.”

When it comes to the homeless, not only are there more laws – including ordinances curbing free meal programs in the parks and banning sleeping in Downtown doorways posted with signs – but there also more outreach programs that offer an alternative to jail, Semko said.

“There's a lot more referrals and outreach, and our enforcement activities stem from very high visibility and a proactive approach to the ordinances,” he said.

In addition, the department's philosophy of “neighborhood-centered policing” has helped build bridges with the homeless who regularly frequent the Downtown.

“Quite a few people we get to know on a first-name basis,” Semko said. “Primarily the people we get to know aren't causing the problems here.”

On the other hand, the transients who come through town and leave have “an adverse reaction to enforcement issues,” he said.

“They haven't come to the understanding they can work with us,” Semko said. “They haven't learned we can work with them and help them get on the right track. I don't think they've built the trust in law enforcement that the regulars have.”

One of the most welcome changes, Semko said, has been the rapport police have established with the local merchants and the support of the Bayside District, which runs the Downtown.

“The biggest change has been the partnership between all the merchants and the whole tie in with the Bayside,” Semko said. “We work as a partnership, working together with businesses. That wasn't in place” a decade ago.

It was “a childhood dream” to to become an officer, and Semko's dad's best friend, “Uncle Sprat,” encouraged the Torrance native to follow in his footsteps.

“I grew up going on ride a longs and hanging out at police stations,” Semko recalled.

After fulfilling a promise to his parents that he would go to college, then working a short stint at a public relations firm, Semko entered the police academy.

He would be one of the first rookie officers newly hired Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. pinned a badge on. His childhood dream had been fulfilled.

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