AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWhicker: Clemson demonstrates that it’s tough to knock out the champAlmost five months after the Daily News portrayed this neighborhood as gripped by fear and intimidated by gang members, crime has declined steadily, parents are returning to the parks, and drug dealing is moving underground.Residents and police attribute the turnaround to a flood of officers now patrolling the nearly 2-square-mile area dubbed the Witch’s Hat for its geographic shape and its often deadly brew of violence, drugs and gangs.In August, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton ordered beefed-up patrols in this slice of the east side of North Hills and west side of Panorama City – with the number of officers dedicated to the zone jumping from eight to 50.One month later, total major crimes in the area dropped by 22percent, from 99 incidents to 77, while arrests rose by 22percent, from 484 to 588, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics.And the decrease has continued, with 72 major crimes logged in the area in November and arrests skyrocketing to a recent high of 711 in October. “It shows that cops count,” said Deputy Chief Michel Moore, head of policing in the San Fernando Valley.The improvements come with the area as the focus of a crime-cleanup effort called the Safer Cities Initiative, targeting crime-plagued areas citywide. But while Skid Row and other places saw precipitous drops in crime, efforts in the Witch’s Hat had faltered until recently.“This Safer Cities Initiative is a program that shows, when a city is properly policed and deployment levels are that of other cities across the country, we see much safer streets, much safer communities,” Moore said.‘Zero tolerance’On a recent weeknight, more than 10 officers were on patrol under the supervision of Sgt. Adrienne Hamilton, who grew up in the neighborhood.She kept an eye on the black-and-white cruisers that rolled past the rows of apartments, taquerias and bars dotting the area, home to five gangs.Unlike regular patrol cops who respond to urgent calls, these officers are sort of jacks-of-all-trades. They know gang members by name, write traffic tickets and frequently talk to apartment managers about making their properties safer.“I am literally telling my officers, ‘Go out and clean up the area. Zero tolerance,’” said Hamilton, driving past an apartment complex where drug dealers and local gangsters used to jump a gate and escape police.But her officers worked with the apartment owner, who erected a 12-foot wrought-iron wall topped with curved spikes.“There’s still crime, but it’s not like it used to be,” Hamilton said. “You would see guys on the sidewalk drinking. You don’t even see that anymore. If you clean up the area, (criminals) can’t blend in anymore.”Despite the improvements, some who live in the Witch’s Hat say cops are targeting people indiscriminately, intimidating the heavily immigrant community.“I am not against the police,” said Jaime Rojas, an immigrant from El Salvador who with his wife, Ana, runs Ana’s Shoes on Parthenia Street. “The area here was a mountain of homeless and druggies. That has changed.“I am against when they stop people on their way to work. I have clients who say they don’t come here anymore because police detain so many people.”In September alone, police arrested 877 people for misdemeanor violations, up 163percent from the previous month, before the LAPD’s show of force in the neighborhood began, department figures show.In August, police handed out 15 curfew citations. In September, that jumped to 67.Worsening residents’ fears have been immigration raids in which the LAPD provided security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Although police say they don’t turn over those arrested to immigration agents, Rojas said even the appearance that the two agencies are working together puts people on edge.“There are so much police in the city, people are going to be afraid,” he said.Bryant Reyes, 18, and Jose Granados, 20, say that between them they have been questioned at least 10 times by police in the past three months.Neither is a felon, a gang member or a drug dealer. The two are just friends who like heavy-metal music and happen to be the age of many gang members police track.But because they are out late at night or wear hooded sweat shirts, they say, they are frequently stopped or followed.“I don’t feel comfortable anymore,” Reyes said.Officers frequently shine a light on him as he walks home, he said, and Granados said he was handcuffed when police thought he was making a drug deal.“The most embarrassing part is it happened in front of my father,” he said.Less fearDespite the complaints, police say their current strategy is the best way to clean up the community.“We are not just randomly stopping people to just stop them,” said Capt. Jorge Villegas, who oversees the LAPD’s Mission Division, which patrols the Witch’s Hat. “They are engaged in some type of behavior. That’s why we stop them.”And residents have noticed. Villegas said police are more frequently getting tips about drug dealers or other illegal activity from people who used to be too scared to say anything.“We are specifically looking for gang members, for drug dealers, for prostitutes and pimps,” he said. “The long-term goal is for us to pull the officers out of this area … so it can maintain itself. The only way that can occur is through economic development.”Plans to develop a 500-unit condo and retail project near Roscoe and Van Nuys boulevards are already under way, City Councilman Richard Alarc?n said.And every weekend since the Daily News wrote about problems in the area in July, Alarc?n has sponsored neighborhood cleanup days, when residents bag trash strewn along the streets and call city dump trucks to pick up old couches and mattresses.He has even negotiated with 24 apartment managers to create a Neighborhood Watch in their area.“I am not ready to say that we are ready to claim victory. I want to do more,” Alarc?n said. “Until we have cameras in place, Neighborhood Watches in place, until we can put up every streetlight we can… and continue with the bulky-item pickup, I am not going to say that we are finished with the area.”‘Police come down’Back in North Hills, a band of young men that claim the Columbus Street gang are being detained by the mostly rookie cops who make up the unit.The officers, many of whom are almost as young as the gangsters themselves, shoot the breeze with them. They know each other by name.“We just stop them to see what’s going on,” LAPD Officer Nicok Girodano said.Juan Valverde, 19, stands a few yards back from Girodano. A gang member who says he’s been locked up in the past for robbery and selling cocaine, he shakes his head when asked how often he’s pulled over. Constantly.“You can’t be taking no risk no more,” he said.He recently has become a father and now is trying to lie low in Sylmar, away from the old neighborhood.“It isn’t how it was back in the day, where you used to shoot people and get away with it,” he said, shrugging.“Now, it’s like one gunshot and the whole police come down.”[email protected] YOU GO There will be a peace march at 6 tonight through a portion of the Witch’s Hat neighborhood. About 500 people are expected to attend. It will begin on Parthenia Street near Langdon Avenue.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! NORTH HILLS – Leaning against her rake in her front yard, Augustina Cervantes peered toward the end of the block across from North Hills Park, where just a few months ago heroin addicts roamed like zombies looking for a fix and violent brawls were commonplace as children played.Now Cervantes feels safe enough to come out at 10 p.m. and rake leaves in front of her small house festooned with Christmas lights.“It’s gotten so much better here,” said Cervantes, a 55-year-old grandmother who has lived on the same street for 16 years. “We don’t see people walking the streets all night anymore.”“There’s even less gang members,” grandson Julio Chavez, 15, piped in.