LONG BEACH — Police officers working to rid the city's redeveloping downtown of criminals and loiterers have a legal right to stop anyone they believe may be about to commit a crime, City Manager James C. Hankla wrote in a report to the City Council.
The report--written Oct. 9 but not widely circulated--was in response to concerns by Councilman Evan Anderson Braude and others that a new police task force may have crossed the line between doing its job and harassing people, including the homeless.
Attorney Marc Coleman, representing various groups, including the Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, had criticized the downtown task force after reading about its methods in a Times' article last month.
The Long Beach Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which recently complained of alleged police misconduct toward blacks, also expressed concern that police are indiscriminately stopping people only because of the way they look.
Praise From Retailers
Downtown retailers, on the other hand, have praised the Police Department for its new emphasis in the area. Business owners said bums and criminals in downtown have driven away their clientele, and they believe the higher police visibility can help bring back customers.
Braude said Tuesday that he is satisfied with the city manager's report, which explained police detention and search policies, among other things. As long as the officers understand "what our policy is," Braude said, he is satisfied.
"We have to be tough, but we also have to be lawful," Braude said, adding that he supports the downtown task force.
After learning the details of Hankla's report, however, Coleman said he did not feel the same way.
"The question is: 'Are the officers in compliance with the policy (described by Hankla)?' It's interesting that they're not making the claim," Coleman said. He added that the report contains a "significant omission" in that Hankla does not comment on police methods that Coleman said may be improper.
Among other things, Coleman questioned whether it is legal for officers in civilian clothes to conspicuously count $1 bills in front of people and then arrest them for panhandling if they ask for money.
Police defended the practice and said it is not entrapment. In the news story, Officer Hernando Torres explained that targeting panhandlers is a high priority in cleaning up downtown. "It used to be 'Could you spare a quarter?' Now, it's 'Hey, give me some money.' They do intimidate a lot of people," Torres explained, adding that there is a "fine line" between panhandling and robbery.
Police Sgt. Gary Halliday said Wednesday that task force members are "still operating the same as they have been all along." The only change in recent weeks is that now officers carry a list of social service agencies they can refer people to in case of emergencies.
Hankla said his report was not meant to respond to reaction to the newspaper story but to explain the activities of the task force. Hankla noted that no one has filed a complaint of a civil rights violation by task force members.
In his brief report to the council, Hankla outlined the task force's make-up, mission, areas of responsibility and its number of arrests since Sept. 22.
Hankla wrote that the task force's primary mission is to curb criminal activity, with a secondary emphasis on traffic violations. Hankla said the city attorney has advised police officers that they have the legal right to:
- Interview and help any person believed to be in need of assistance.
- Briefly detain any individual suspected of having committed a crime, or anyone who appears about to commit a crime. Such a detention would be based on the circumstances as well as the officers' experience.
- Conduct a limited search for weapons to ensure officer safety.
- Arrest any individual and conduct a full search if probable cause is established.
Another area of the task force's responsibility "falls into the purview of social service," Hankla wrote in the report. "Police officer interaction with the homeless is primarily one of concern for the welfare of the indigent person. . . ."
"As with many other issues for which society has no remedy, the police have been placed in a position which is only remotely related to law enforcement in dealing with the homeless problem," Hankla wrote, repeating words that Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley had used in a letter to The Times. "If a homeless person violates the law, he will be treated as anyone else. If he is in need of help, officers will provide the appropriate information and oftentimes even transport the individual to a help-service site."
15 Felony Arrests
Between Sept. 22 and Oct. 9, the downtown task force made 15 felony arrests, 103 misdemeanor arrests and issued 95 citations, along with 234 traffic violations and 35 parking violations. Task force members also assisted seven people with apparent mental health problems, according to Hankla's report.
Sid Solomon, president of the Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, criticized the City Council Tuesday for not placing Hankla's report on a public agenda "so that the public can come here and respond to it."
"If it's not on the agenda, it is buried," Solomon told the council. Until this week, he said, he was not aware the report had been issued.
City officials responded that the report is available to anyone who requests it.