WHITTIER — When police questioned and photographed homeless and poor people receiving free food in Central Park last week, they lied to the people about why the officers were stopping them, police said.
Sgt. Barry Chartier, who directed the operation, said in an interview late last week that the people were told the officers were collecting information for the City Council, which was considering allocating money for the homeless.
Actually, City Council members, as well as the city manager, said they knew nothing about the operation.
Photos for Police Files
Police now say that a series of burglaries prompted them to photograph the homeless and others as they received food handouts because of a series of burglaries in the Uptown area. The photographs will be retained in police files and may be shown to crime witnesses, Chartier said. Probably, only a few of the photographs will be used, he said.
Chartier called the deception "an unfortunate mistake." But a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles said it sounds more like "old-fashioned police harassment."
Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the ACLU, said Whittier police may also have violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure, and may have infringed on the Constitutional right to privacy. Rosenbaum represented Los Angeles' homeless in a similar complaint against the Los Angeles Police Department during the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Officers Obtained Consent
Chartier said the police operation--which will continue--does not violate civil rights because the people give their consent before being photographed.
Legal Aid attorney Gary L. Blasi, who along with Rosenbaum is a member of the Homeless Litigation Unit Team in Los Angeles, said he doubts that the consent being obtained by police is sufficient to prevent Constitutional violations.
"If a guy with a gun on his hip says 'may I interview you?' and you say, 'yes,' it doesn't mean they haven't violated your right to privacy," he said.
The City Council was informed of the police action by four citizens, who complained at last week's council meeting. They said most of those photographed were in the park to pick up a bag of groceries from the Ecumenical Food Center, which distributes there.
Councilwoman Sabina Schwab asked City Manager Thomas G. Mauk for an investigation.
"I'm very surprised and disappointed," she said. "This doesn't sound at all good to me."
Crime in Business District
Chartier said the operation began at Central Park because of an increase in reported crime in Whittier's busiest commercial district. So far this year, churches, businesses and schools have been broken into 14 times there, police said.
At this time last year, they had been hit only five times. Burglaries also are up citywide, from 32 in 1986 to 57 this year, police said.
Chartier acknowledged that the Police Department has no evidence linking the 17 poor and homeless people they interviewed Tuesday in Central Park to any of the burglaries. In fact, none of them matched a police officer's description of a suspect he saw fleeing a burglary scene in Uptown last Sunday, he said.
Street people expressed anger later in the week when they learned of the reason behind the interviews and picture-taking.
"It seems so humiliating, like people are stereotyping me as a criminal because I'm getting food," said Dan Kemp, 24.
He Felt Intimidated
A man who is disabled and lives in an inexpensive Uptown hotel, told the City Council he cooperated with police because he felt intimidated. Jerry Sterling, 45, said he was trying to avoid being interviewed by heading for the men's restroom when he was approached. "It was 'step into the sunlight,' and click," Sterling said of the picture-taking by police.
Had he been given a choice, Sterling said he would have refused. "Suppose next week I'm walking through a neighborhood where a burglary just took place," Sterling said. "At the very least, I'll be drug in for questioning."
Police said everyone they approached consented to an interview, but one refused to be photographed. That individual is a homeless, 19-year-old man who acknowledged having a police record in an interview with a reporter. He said the officer seemed angry when the photo request was turned down.
Those who cooperated, however, said police treated them courteously.
Police Chief Approves
Police Chief James Bale said officers were seeking crime witnesses as well as suspects. But the half-dozen street people interviewed by police and later questioned by a reporter recalled being asked for their names, addresses, places of employment, ages and identifying physical features, but none remembered being asked any crime-related questions.
Bale said he did not order the operation. "But if they had asked me, I would have authorized it," he said.
Cmdr. William Booth, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said officers on that police force, which deals with thousands of homeless, would question them only if they had evidence directly linking them with a serious crime.
Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney, said that in a similar case 2 1/2 years ago, a Superior Court judge enjoined Los Angeles police from illegal detention and searches of homeless in the downtown area. The ruling by Superior Court Judge Robert Fainer is not binding on Whittier police.