Los Angeles public housing tenants can't drink alcohol outside their units

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Police officers plan to start enforcing a city rule that prohibits people from drinking alcohol in the common areas of any public housing development run by the city of Los Angeles or anywhere outside a tenant's individual apartment unit.

The city attorney’s office is reworking language in an existing ordinance that already bans alcohol consumption on public property.

No person shall drink any malt, spirituous or vinous liquor containing more than one-half of one per cent of alcohol by volume, upon any street, sidewalk or parkway, park, playground, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, or in any railroad depot or bus station, or in any public place, or in any place open to the patronage of the public, which premises are not licensed for the consumption of such liquor on the premises.

The amendment to the ordinance would specifically identify public housing projects as public property. The L.A. City Council would have to approve the change before it takes effect.

The issue surfaced at a City Council committee meeting in late August after Los Angeles police officers in the Southeast division tried issuing citations to people drinking at the housing projects.

“They are complaining that the property is posted 'private property' and that they are not, therefore, in public,” said Mary Dennis with the Los Angeles city attorney’s office at a September City Council committee meeting.

Dennis said the ambiguity in the ordinance has created difficulty, and has slowed court cases because city prosecutors have to argue each and every citation issued.

LAPD officers in the Southeast Division patrol three of the largest public housing projects in the city: Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts.

Porch sitting and people watching are daily pasttimes at these developments. But on one particular evening, crowds of people wearing purple began to gather in the Jordan Downs parking lots and at the community picnic tables.

LAPD Cpt. Phillip Tingirides cruised the complexes monitoring foot traffic. It was Hood Day. He explained that gangs observe certain days to celebrate their gang’s existence.

“People get intoxicated. They’re angry about somebody getting shot and killed or stuff that happens that night and it ends up in a shooting,” he said.

The Southeast police division hadn’t seen a homicide on Hood Day in two years. Tinigirides said gang violence has tamed during the year since police began working with gang task forces and community liaisons at the public housing projects. The division assigns 10 officers and a sergeant to each development. Under Tingirides' direction, they’re ordered to make fewer arrests and forge better relationships.

“Now people are calling us and complaining, ‘Hey, we got guys coming over here. They don’t live here. They sell dope, they sit hit here and drink,” he said.

It’s obvious that not everyone at the housing developments feel warm and fuzzy about the LAPD. As Tinigrides cruised the complexes, many directed long stares toward the patrol car. Others waved or hollered out a friendly “hey.” That represents real progress, Tingirides said, and he doesn’t want to regress.

So he wants to use the no-drinking-alcohol-in-public ordinance as another tool to break up potentially rowdy crowds. Tinigirides said he plans to use it the way Southeast division police use the gang injunctions - sparingly, he said,  because tenants get bitter when officers start patting people down and making arrests.

Tingirides said city attorneys have told him that the small cement porch in front of each housing unit is the only visible public area that’s considered part of the tenant's personal space.

“The guy sitting out having a beer on his front porch, we don’t care about that. But if they’re having a big ole gang party and drinking and getting crazy,” he said, police would enforce the alcohol ban.

But who’s say what’s a gang party from a weekend barbeque or family get-together? Anybody visible in public drinking alcohol could be subject to the ban.

Lourdes Bucio has lived at the Avalon Gardens public housing development on 88th Street for six years.

“Look, when it’s a party for children, then it should be for children. There’s food, soda but I don’t like to always buy beer for a kid’s party. There’s soda and you can drink it or not,” she said.

Bucio said her part of the complex is fairly quiet.  Sometimes she hears cop sirens for incidents that happen on the other side. She welcomes enforcement of the alcohol ordinance.

Her daughter, Joanna Barrera, who lives with her, said enforcement should depend on the circumstances.  She said neighbors sometimes spontaneously gather in front of a unit for a night of chatter and drinks, but she added that it’s always been calm.

“They’ll have to look at it both ways,” Barrera said. “If they’re causing problems then obviously you’ll give them a ticket but if they’re not, if they’re just having a peaceful gathering, that is going to cause a problem.”

Tenants at other housing projects have said they would support the alcohol ordinance in the hope that it would deter troublemakers from loitering around on the complexes. A few said it wasn’t needed and could generate another bitter divide between tenants and police.

Cpt. Phillip Tingirides said his officers are not interested in busting the porch sitters, the people watchers, the neighborly gatherings, or the kids' bouncy house parties where people sip adult beverages. 

But if the police don’t issue citations out for drinking in public at housing projects, officials with  L.A.’s housing authority can. The lease agreement states that alcohol consumption outside individual units is prohibited.

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