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Manhattan Beach Police Chief Derrick Abel addresses residents at a townhall meeting Wednesday March 27 at the Joslyn Center. 

A sexual assault that occurred near a popular exercise path in Manhattan Beach almost two weeks ago has stirred up raw emotions and caused some in this upscale community to question their own safety.

In the wake of the sexual assault, residents have called on police to do more to ensure their safety, while city officials have worked to reassure them that law enforcement is doing the best it can, with both groups coming together this week at a town hall – during which police urged residents to remain vigilant and updated them on the investigation.

“Whatever it takes to make this better, we will do it,” said Mayor Steve Napolitano at a town hall meeting Wednesday, Sept. 5. “Government’s first priority is public safety. We will never forget that.”

Police have also stepped up patrols and reached out to state and federal agencies for assistance in identifying a man who, officials say, followed a woman into her home, at Ninth Street and Valley Drive just off the Green Belt, and raped her at about 9 p.m. Aug. 26.

Police have released a sketch of the suspect and have described him as being in his early 40s, with an athletic build. But the suspect has not been identified, nor do police have video evidence of the man.

Police Chief Derrick Abell said the department was working to install additional lighting in the area where the recent assault took place. That particular area, popular for walking and jogging, has been the location for violent crimes in the past, including an attempted sexual assault in June 2017 and an assault on three teenage girls in March 2018. Arrests have not been made in either case, police said.

“When something happens like this we go into overdrive,” Abell said.

At the town hall meeting, though, a woman whose house, five blocks from the most recent sexual assault, was burglarized on Friday, Aug. 31, complained that police did not respond quickly enough.

“They are lurking all over our house,” the woman said. “They came in and took everything. It’s scary and I want out of this community.”

Abell said he sympathized with her and vowed that officers would continue working with her family to solve the burglary, and do whatever they could to make them feel safe.

“I understand and I’m sorry,” said the chief, a 28-year department veteran who came into office just shy of a year ago.

Cutting back vegetation on the Green Belt was another way safety could could be improved in the neigbhorhood, Abell said.

“If there is any way that we can go up and down the Green Belt,” the chief said, “and look at places that might be hiding spots and cut something back so that individuals are not hiding in certain places, then we will look into that as well.”

The chief pushed back on the idea, brought up at the meeting, of installing cameras in the public right-of-way, saying that past attempts in the city were met with resistance. Instead, he urged community members to register their own private security cameras so that police could contact them in the future if they wanted to request footage.

A neighborhood watch captain complained she was not being provided enough information from the police about crimes and arrests. Every week, the police release property crime data, but not enough about arrest reports, she said.

“We used to have a whole lot more information, but now it’s just very specific to the car break-ins and property crimes,” the block captain said. “There are other things going on in town and we all need to know it.”

Abell said the police needed to do a better job at providing information.

“If they aren’t receiving the information they need to convey to the rest of you, then we aren’t doing what we’re supposed to do,” Abell said. “That concerns me.”

Charlotte Lesser, neighborhood watch director, said the community has been on edge since the rape almost two weeks ago.

“Any time you have a unique crime like that, which we haven’t had in a long time in Manhattan beach, it puts everybody on edge,” said Lesser, who helped start the neighborhood watch program in the city roughly 40 years ago. “It’s different than the routine things that people accept as part of life and there’s a fear factor and it’s real. People begin to look at their community differently.”

Contact David Rosenfeld at David.Rosenfeld@TBRnews.com, or you can follow him on Twitter @RosenfeldReport.

Digital Editor

David has been working as a professional journalist for nearly 20 years in newspapers, magazines and websites. He's covered murder trials, interviewed governors and presidential candidates and once did a flip in a bi-plane for a story assignment.

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