LONG BEACH — A top city police official, fending off criticism of the tactics used by his department's new downtown task force, said he has counseled its officers this week that they must act within the law in their contacts with citizens.
Deputy Chief Gene Brizzolara, who heads the department's patrol force, denied that task force officers are harassing the homeless or anyone else. Actually, officers are trying to help the homeless by referring them to social service agencies, he said in an interview Tuesday.
Criminals, not the homeless, are the prime target of the task force, which began patrols last week, Brizzolara said.
The City Council asked Tuesday for a report after Councilman Evan Anderson Braude and a civil rights lawyer questioned the conduct of the task force. City Manager James Hankla said he will prepare a report on the city's policy.
Cited Newspaper Story
Braude cited a story Sunday in The Times that he said raises "inferences of possible legal rights violations" by the officers. "I think we should find out about it," he told the council.
Marc Coleman, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, the Lambda Democratic Club and Long Beach Urban League, said some of the officers' activities as described in the article appeared to be illegal.
The task force, which includes both daytime and nighttime patrols, was formed with the stated goal, according to one police sergeant, "to make this a desirable place" by ridding the downtown of bums, drunks, panhandlers and thieves.
In one instance reported in the story, a plainclothes officer conspicuously counted a stack of $1 bills in front of a disheveled woman. When the woman asked for 50 cents, then $1.25, she was arrested for panhandling.
While Coleman said the incident as described in The Times smacks of entrapment, Brizzolara defended the action.
"It could be construed as (entrapment), but it's legal for us to do that," he said. He added that panhandlers are a high priority in trying to clean up downtown.
"That's one of our prime complaints from the citizens who frequent the downtown area. They can't walk a block downtown without getting hit up for money," Brizzolara said.
In another instance, officers questioned a 21-year-old man and an 18-year-old girl sitting on a bench in the Long Beach Plaza, where they said they had come to eat lunch and shop. The man, who wore torn jeans and carried a black leather jacket emblazoned with a skull-and-crossbones emblem, was searched.
Besides finding a brass knuckle, the search turned up a locket and flat piece of gold that an officer confiscated. The officer said he wanted to check to see if the jewelry had been stolen. He said the couple could pick up the locket and gold at the police station in 72 hours.
Police arrested the man after a radio check showed he was wanted on a warrant for owing $171 on a traffic violation.
Sgt. Richard Wood--who is quoted in the story--explained that police stopped the couple because "we wanted to question (them) for possibly loitering. They were sitting there, kind of shabbily dressed. Not that people don't have the right to sit there shabbily dressed. But (they were people) we wanted to talk to, with the emphasis of cleaning up the mall and ridding it of people who have no business being there."
Officer Steve Strichart, a member of the task force, said he decides to stop "anyone you see who you wouldn't want your wife, mother or daughter coming in contact with."
Coleman said such stop-and-search tactics amount to allowing officers to choose their search targets based on appearance.
Brizzolara said the officer involved in the search was a narcotics expert who thought that he had found a heroin user. He defended the confiscation of the jewelry.
"If the officer felt it was contraband . . . yeah, he had a legal cause to take that," he said.
Brizzolara said that "based on what I saw in the article and based on the feedback I get, I don't think they (the officers) were crossing the line. They were using every legal means to get the job done."
To make sure, he said he reminded the officers this week, as he did before the task force started, to stay within legal bounds.
The task force, he said, is "extremely successful" and has the backing of downtown business owners and the public.