West Hollywood is putting its money on Block by Block.
City Council reviewed a new contract with the security ambassadors at their meeting Monday night that invests an additional $3.94 million in the program over the next two fiscal years, for a total of $11.5 million.
The contract marks the start of a new era for public safety in WeHo, one in which the city relies more heavily on the unarmed parapolice squad while eventually reducing the presence of sworn L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies.
Mayor Lauren Meister and Councilmember John Erickson expressed concern about whether Block by Block would be able to staff the additional 30 security ambassadors decided upon last month within the 60-day period of the agreement. Block by Block apparently is still in the process of recruiting six new positions that were approved prior to that.
“My biggest concern right now is the hiring of these individuals,” Erickson said, “and I know that we’re not taking away one Sheriff’s deputy at the moment, but we do need those important check-ins if this item is to pass. Either to the council or the city manager, update us that we’ve hired all six. So that item is done. Now we’re hiring 30. We have it going on and hopefully it’s sooner rather than later so this continues to work.”
The reduction of Sheriff’s personnel approved during last month’s budget meeting isn’t immediate. Erickson’s motion, which directed staff to return in 45 days with an update on Block by Block’s hiring and recruiting progress, included a recommendation by Meister that would allow Council to delay the budget reduction plans for the Sheriff if Block by Block’s hiring is not up to pace. The motion passed 4-0.
Public Safety Comissioner Kerri Balbone, speaking generally in support of the measure as a member of the public, offered her take on the way the costs are shaping up.
“We started out with the financial equivalent of five sheriff’s (deputies) or $1.65 million,” Balbone said. “Now that that’s going back to Block by Block for pricing, we’re at $1.95 million. If this was meant to be a budget exercise to provide more safety and security in a budget-neutral fashion, it’s now not that anymore, and I think that needs to be addressed. Overhead, whether it’s the Sheriff’s Department or Block by Block, is part of pricing. So 1.65 should equal 1.65.”
The new contract sheds some light on what Block by Block is actually obligated to provide the city, and some of their listed responsibilities reflect recent controversies the organization has weathered.
Block by Block will now provide 1,200 hours of foot patrols each week at key locations, including Beverly Blvd. and Melrose Ave. Ambassadors will man security kiosks at Plummer Park and West Hollywood park restrooms, on Santa Monica Blvd. and La Brea, and four yet-to-be-determined spots. The program is also purchasing two electric bicycles.
In addition to “reducing crime and increasing the perception of security,” ambassadors are also supposed to move scooters and electric bikes out of people’s way and educate riders on how to use them properly. They are also tasked with providing “directions, business recommendations, and parking choices” and, curiously, “reporting large and bulky items and rout(ing) to the appropriate person.”
The new contract clearly states that personnel must pass a background check and “be found to have no criminal conviction that renders him or her unsuitable for the position for which he or she is intended.”
It was recently revealed that WeHo’s top Block by Block officer Shea Gibson served eight years in state prison on a voluntary manslaughter charge.
The city reserves the right to have ambassadors removed or replaced at any time.
The contract requires Block by Block to supply and maintain equipment like phones and radios. Another recent report alleged that the program had been derelict in doing so.
Ambassadors are also obligated to keep detailed reports about the areas patrolled each hour, interactions with the public, and communications with the Sheriff’s and Fire Departments. They will also be carrying Narcan, a treatment for drug overdoses, and test strips that detect spiked drinks.