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A Night In The Drunk Tank

December 30, 1990|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County View

ANAHEIM — Every few seconds, the scream coming from Safety Cell 9 rises to a horrible rasping shriek. The young woman inside is disheveled, disoriented, terrified, outraged. She pounds on the walls and the thick metal door, wailing for an unseen friend to help her, consumed by uncomprehending alcoholic delirium, rage and fright.

In the adjacent booking area room, she appears every few seconds on one of several small video monitors, then disappears again as the automatic surveillance system switches to another camera in another cell. But she keeps screaming and screaming.

On the other side of the booking area and down a short corridor, a thin 37-year-old man with tangled blond hair sits cross-legged on the bare floor in a corner of the male detoxification cell and hugs himself as he sways back and forth. His face is bloated, flushed and lined beyond his years and when he was brought in nearly two hours before, shaky but conscious, his eyes were blazing red, swimming and unfocused. Sealed in the cell behind unbreakable glass, he cannot hear the woman's screams.

"That guy's probably a really good candidate for a detox center," says Anaheim Police Lt. Ted LaBahn, the officer in charge of what is known officially as the city's holding facility--the jail. "This is a classic alcoholic. He's a drunk drunk. He's obviously been through the system. We'd have no problem if they were all like him."

He nods toward Safety Cell 9. "But her . . . ."

The California Penal Code section is 647f. It explains when public drunkenness becomes a crime. It describes a person who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs "in such a condition that he or she is unable to exercise care for his or her own safety or the safety of others, or . . . interferes with or obstructs or prevents the free use of any street, sidewalk or other public way."

LaBahn is more succinct.

"We only enforce it," he said, "if there's a problem or there's going to be one."

That means that drunks who are lying in a driveway and are too intoxicated to move, or who are staggering insensibly into the street, or shouting incoherently outside an apartment building, or passed out in the bushes behind a bar are candidates for a night in the drunk tank.

They are brought in every night, but the weekends are the busiest. Every Friday or Saturday night, between 15 and 20 people will arrive in handcuffs at the Anaheim holding facility in violation of section 647f. They will be booked and will remain in jail until they sober up, rarely longer than six hours, LaBahn said.

Anaheim is lucky. It has a jail where public drunks can sober up by themselves, in a detoxification or safety cell, and the jail staff can check their progress on the video monitors and during a routine walk around the jail every 30 minutes.

Ten other Orange County cities, however, have no jail, and officers or watch commanders on duty must supervise drunks until they sober up or are released. In other cities where facilities are minimal, arrests for public drunkenness have been discouraged. And because of overcrowding, no public drunks at all are accepted at Orange County Jail.

Police would love to be rid of the responsibility for taking care of the benign, non-combative drunk, the person whose immediate problem will disappear when his body metabolizes away the alcohol.

"If we had a place to put these people," LaBahn said, "it would be a godsend."

A task force of city, county and law enforcement officials convened by county Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder would like to see the drunks taken to a series of four or five "sobering up centers" that the group has proposed for the county. The centers would be staffed by civilian health care professionals, freeing police to return to duty immediately after bringing the drunks in.

They brought in 7,352 of them in 1988, according to the task force report. The actual figure, however, probably is considerably higher because Anaheim was not included (the Anaheim Police Department, said the report, was unable to provide a figure because of lack of time to do a "hand search" of its records). Though Barbara Foster, one of Wieder's executive assistants, said public drunkenness was "an ongoing problem" in Orange County, she added that the city police chiefs sitting on Wieder's task force have said they believe that the problem is increasing.

A sobering-up center, depending on availability and funding, could be part of a hospital alcohol ward, a section of an existing alcohol treatment center or be created as a new, free-standing facility, according to the task force report.

Garden Grove Police Chief John Robertson, a member of the task force, said he would like to see the centers work in concert with existing facilities that now provide long-term counseling and care for alcoholics.

"What we end up doing now is basically baby-sitting them," said Robertson. "They go into a holding cell, they sober up and then they go out the door. Some of them we see night after night."

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