When Los Angeles police commissioners in Northridge asked for public opinion, they got an angry earful Tuesday about a pending plan to go easy on unlicensed drivers, mostly illegal immigrants.
Residents, concerned about plans to halt a policy of 30-day car holds for first offenders, jammed St. Nicholas Church in Northridge to express their outrage. Some 300 people filled the church's auditorium seats, with another 100 forced to stand in the back and dozens more prevented from squeezing in the building.
"Cars driven by an unlicensed driver should be impounded for 30 days," said Sharon Brewer of Reseda. "If you can't pay the fine, avoid the crime. Walk, ride or take the bus."
The police proposal to ease car impounds for unlicensed motorists has sparked intense debate about public safety, state law and the punishment of unlicensed drivers.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said he will soon stop the 30-day seizures, which he deems a hardship on illegal immigrants who face $1,500 towing bills and who need their cars to support their families.
The change, planned sometime this month, would lift the 30-day impound for unlicensed drivers, unless their licenses had been revoked or suspended.
Instead of being towed, cars of any first offenders could be retrieved by the registered owner or a licensed driver, given a "reasonable" amount of time.
The chief, supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and immigrant advocacy groups, dubs it a simple change in police procedure.
Opponents, including San Fernando Valley Councilman Mitchell Englander and local police unions, call it a major change in public policy - and a dire threat to public safety.
"This (turnout) is spectacular," Englander said.
"This is not a mere procedural change. I believe this policy change will make all of us less safe, all our families less safe. I feel we must all take action."
They say it challenges a state law enacted 18 years ago, considered the harshest ever against unlicensed drivers.
Instead of being decided by the chief, they say the 30-day impound change should be carefully weighed by elected officials, as well as the police commission.
Despite various police presentations, the commission has so far declined to rule on the 30-day hold.
The massive turnout in the church auditorium was encouraged by a weeklong drumbeat by radio talk show duo John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of KFI AM (640).
It was also sparked by the death of a 60-year-old woman pedestrian killed in Panorama City last month by a car driven by an unlicensed driver.
Few in the crowd were there to speak in favor of the policy change.
Beck told the crowd he could not directly address the impound issue because it was not on the Police Commission agenda. But he told the crowd he was listening to them.
"What you say is important," Beck said. "I know there are decisions being made right now that affect a great number of people - but nothing's set in stone. What you say matters."