From the Los Angeles Times
LAPD's Skid Row Divide
The more radical of two proposals under debate would rid area of 'box cities.' The other would target crime. Bratton is expected to decide soon.
By Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton
Times Staff Writers
March 10, 2006
Top Los Angeles Police Department officials are divided over two proposals for cleaning up skid row — one an ambitious and controversial effort to move thousands of homeless people off the streets, the other focused primarily on reducing crime.
The debate comes as the city struggles to develop a comprehensive strategy for solving the downtown district's many long-entrenched problems.
Despite the intense focus on skid row in recent months, progress so far has been hard to measure.
Last week, the LAPD declared one of skid row's most notorious sections — the 600 block of San Julian Street — a "drug-free zone" after a series of altercations between homeless people and officers.
With increased patrols, San Julian's large homeless population scattered, and for the first time in years the street looks largely like a ghost town. But officials acknowledge that it was far from a long-term solution, noting that most of the transients simply relocated elsewhere downtown.
The more radical of the two master plans under consideration by the LAPD is being pushed by Asst. Chief George Gascon, who is calling for the department to permanently rid the area of its ubiquitous tent and box cities.
Gascon, one of Chief William J. Bratton's top deputies, argues that the department's efforts so far simply have not had a strong enough effect on the homeless problem.
His plan is similar to Bratton's original policing idea for skid row when he arrived in 2002. The chief called for removing the tent cities, but the department scaled back its plans after the American Civil Liberties Union sued, saying the practice violated homeless people's civil rights.
But others in the LAPD are backing a blueprint for skid row drafted by George Kelling, the noted Rutgers criminologist who is a co-author with James Q. Wilson of the "broken windows" theory of policing that Bratton has adopted. The theory holds that punishing lesser offenses leads to reductions in major crimes. Kelling argues that rather than removing homeless people wholesale from the streets, the LAPD should focus on criminals, including drug dealers and prostitutes, who he says create a "culture of lawlessness" in the area.
The divide is generating anxiety among service providers and officials. Bratton has said he is mulling what approach to take, with a decision expected in the next few weeks.
The LAPD has begun drug stings and increased some patrols. But the department has yet to assign the 50 new officers promised for the area last fall.
The LAPD is considered the central piece in a broad effort by state and local officials to fix skid row, which has the largest concentration of homeless people in the Western states.
State legislators have introduced bills that would crack down on the practice of "dumping" homeless people and criminals in the area, while the city attorney's office is investigating dumping of patients by local hospitals. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to make improving homeless services a top priority.
Gascon wants the LAPD to begin regular sweeps of areas where thousands of homeless people set up nightly tent and cardboard cities. LAPD policy now allows the encampments at night as long as residents dismantle them by 6 a.m. The department also conducts regular cleanups of area streets, notifying people in advance and sending in skip loaders to collect debris.
Gascon would like police — with help from service providers and prosecutors — to go through the tent cities, identify who is there and deal with them appropriately. Those suspected of crimes would be arrested, those with drug problems would be offered treatment and others would be given shelter beds.
The idea, he said, is to differentiate "the shelter-resistant and, more importantly, the hard-core criminals from the truly homeless. With the hard-core criminal element, we will seek the appropriate levels of enforcement."
By contrast, Kelling, who was invited by Bratton to assess skid row, argues that the department must first reduce crime before the city can tackle the underlying social and medical causes of homelessness downtown.
If police can reduce the drug dealing, prostitution and petty crimes that plague skid row, "there could be more efficient dealing with the homeless in the area who are in need of social services," he said.
Kelling's plan relies on the LAPD's ability to deploy substantially more officers into skid row, he said — a "flood the zone" tactic that Bratton has used effectively to reduce crime in parts of South Los Angeles. But it remains unclear whether the extra personnel will be available. A draft of his plan is now before Bratton.
In an interview, Kelling questioned whether Gascon's more aggressive tactics would be effective in the long run — perhaps in part because they would probably run afoul of civil libertarians and homeless advocates.
"My conclusion is that if they go ahead with a knee-jerk reaction, it's important they have proper guidelines," he said. "It has to be done right. It has to be done justly."
Kelling is not alone in his concerns. Several officials at downtown homeless services organization expressed concern that the kind of sweeps Gascon is talking about would get the homeless off skid row but not necessarily deal with the underlying issues.
They worry that Gascon's plan would simply place more homeless people in the county's overcrowded jails or back on the street in other parts of the city where there is less enforcement. A significant portion of the homeless on skid row have substance abuse problems or mental illness or both, and need significant help to get off the streets, they say.
Moreover, they doubt there are enough shelter beds to accommodate the thousands of people who would need places to live if the tent cities were removed.
An LAPD census conducted last month found that there were about 1,300 people living in the tent cities, though there are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 homeless people in downtown.
"They are going to go somewhere," said Orlando Ward of the Midnight Mission. "They could cross the bridge into East L.A. or go down to South Los Angeles, or hop the Red Line. Any plan needs to be prepared for that reality…. We need to be extra-sensitive to the lack of resources for folks who do need the help."
Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents most of downtown, said she had spoken with Gascon about his plan but is concerned that it could be divisive.
"We have an enormous amount of goodwill right now," not just among elected officials but also in the community, she said. "I didn't want to endanger it or throw off a very delicate balance."
For months, the LAPD, along with other law enforcement agencies and elected officials, has been debating how to best clean up skid row.
In January, a group of downtown business leaders, politicians and community activists traveled to New York to examine how that city had cleaned up Times Square. They learned that the effort had required cooperation among government, business, police and social services agencies.
Skid row is one of three areas — along with Hollywood and MacArthur Park — that Bratton has targeted for the "broken windows" approach. But many of his initial efforts in the area were stymied by two ACLU lawsuits.
In the first case, the ACLU won an injunction that bars police from searching homeless people without reasonable suspicion that they had violated parole.
The second case, challenging the city's ordinance banning people from sitting or sleeping on public streets, lost in federal court and is now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Bratton has expressed frustration at not being able to deal more aggressively with skid row, which he has described as "Dante's Inferno."
But legal challenges are only one stumbling block to either plan. Ultimately, Bratton said this week, the city will need to find the money to pay for more officers to patrol the area.
As officials debated the larger policy, policing continued on skid row. Officers said they were pleased by their efforts to clean up San Julian Street, but saw it as a small victory. They noted that while some of the homeless people entered shelters, many just moved to other parts of downtown.
"No one got arrested," said Officer Deon Joseph. "Nobody was yanked out of their tents. This is my area, and it was time to police it."