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Shhhh ... I'm taking your wallet

March 4, 2009 | 10:56 am

Library250 If even for an hour or two, the Richard J. Riordan Central Library downtown has always been a great place to trade in the hectic pace of the outside world for the slower, more civilized world of books and ideas.

But Los Angeles Police say the crown jewel of the city's library system recently earned a dubious distinction: It had more thefts last year of personal property -- excluding shoplifting -- than any location in the downtown area.

LAPD Lt. Paul Vernon said there were 31 theft reports filed in 2008, including wallets and purses, followed  bicycles, laptops and other electronic equipment. This year, there have been eight reported thefts -- four for bicycles versus three bikes for the entirety of 2008 -- on pace to surpass last year's total.

To put it in perspective, the leading location for stolen items in the LAPD's Central Division was Macy's, with 94 shoplifting reports, all resulting in arrests. No arrests have been made in the library thefts this year or last, Vernon said.

"Part of the message is that people need to be more aware of their surroundings and not to be naive to crime," Vernon said. "It's easy to get lost in thought at the library and leave your belongings behind. What people don't realize, there's someone watching and waiting for you to walk away."

Most of the thefts have been reported between noon and 6 p.m. and most likely involve habitual drug users looking for items that can easily be cashed in as a means of buying drugs. A favorite target for thieves is the history department in Lower Level 4.

Vernon said it's no surprise that thieves favor the area because it's "the most remote place in the library." Although the library has security cameras, Vernon said "they do not record and are rarely monitored." Police are working with the library to try to address the issue.

Gary Newton, chief of General Services' office of public safety, which is in charge of security at the library, said cameras are expensive to upgrade, and they are only one piece of an overall security strategy.

"Most of these thefts are crimes of opportunity," Newton said. "By educating those who patronize the library, we can substantially reduce these thefts."

He noted at least one security officer is monitoring the library cameras 24 hours a day. But given the size of the facility and security staffing, there are limits to the number of cameras that can be monitored at one time.

Library spokesman Peter V. Persic said today that the library faces challenges in monitoring a building that is half a million square feet and used by 7,000 people on a daily basis.

"I don't think there's another facility downtown -- or anywhere else in the city -- that is that large and has that many people coming through on a daily basis," Persic said. "We face the same challenges that every other public place faces. We are working with the office of public safety to remind patrons to keep a watch on their personal items."

-- Andrew Blankstein

Photo: LAPD officers outside the central library. Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times