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
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
“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
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
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,”
In addition, the department's philosophy of “neighborhood-centered policing”
has helped build bridges with the homeless who regularly frequent the
“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
“I grew up going on ride a longs and hanging out at police stations,”
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
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.