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How California Failed Kevin Evans

Cover Story

He Lived a Terrible Life, an Insane Man of the Streets Who Died Rather Than Give Up a Sandwich to Jailers. By Then, State and L.A. County Agencies Had Missed Every Chance They Had to Help.

August 26, 2001|JOE DOMANICK | Joe Domanick is the author of "To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams." His next book, "The Victims," is about the evolution of California's three strikes law, and will be published by University of California Press next summer

Yet what has that passion brought? Why, critics ask, is it taking so long to make improvements? Why did Evans' death happen on his watch? Why is the county still paying $22 million a year to settle police abuse lawsuits, such as the $600,000 awarded to Evans' sisters in settlement of their wrongful death claim?

In fairness, Baca--who, in line with his pledge of complete openness, ordered his department's full cooperation for this article--inherited a long-simmering cesspool of a jail system when he took office in late 1998. In 1997, for example, a Justice Department inspection of the Men's Central Jail had found that many mentally ill inmates were locked almost around the clock in dank, tiny cells, let out to exercise just once a week and rarely permitted to shower. Often they were given improperly prescribed medications.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 23, 2001 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
In "How California Failed Kevin Evans" (by Joe Domanick, Aug. 26), it was incorrectly reported that Evans died in the forensic inpatient unit of the county jail's Medical Services Building. The death occurred in a strap-down room of the building, one floor below the forensic unit.

A report by Bobb that same year described how guards encouraged inmates to beat other prisoners. In 1998, a vigilante group was accused of "punishing" mentally ill inmates in the newly opened Twin Towers because their new cells were too nice. Danny Smith, a mentally ill inmate, died after allegedly being choked or beaten by deputies while handcuffed. A year later, Bobb wrote that it was "dispiriting to find that acute problems persist." He credited the department with making progress but "at a wearying pace."

Baca's reply is that he's worked hard to devise a sweeping solution. He tried and failed to get USC Medical Center and other hospitals to take over the running of the entire jail medical services system. Now, Baca says, he's banking on a long-awaited $26-million automated computer system that is just coming online. It will allow jail personnel to keep track of inmate medical records and make the kind of identifications and link-ups to prior records that might have helped provide a fuller picture of Evans.

Baca, moreover, has been in office just 33 months. Turning around an organization filled with rigid police mentalities is no easy thing, particularly if, like Baca, you sound more like an ACLU board member than a hard-nosed cop. "I think that some people believe that there are homeless who don't want to be helped; that there are 20%-30% you can never help," Baca says. "To me that's a cop-out attitude. Some take longer than others to reach. But if we don't have outreach, then all we're doing is neglecting our most basic human responsibility. Why can't we muster the same concern for someone who's raggedy looking as we can for a wounded animal? There's something drastically wrong here."

Baca has three immediate goals.

First, to complete a mobile medical clinic within six to eight months. It will go straight into areas frequented by the homeless and provide medical and psychological services.

Second, to secure state and federal money to build a Public Safety Center for the Homeless, a place where they can stay in custody and get treatment, services and medication. "The goal is to not have the Kevin Evanses of the world cycled into the jail environment for their treatment," Baca says.

Goal three is to create a Community Transition Unit to evaluate the homeless when they first enter Twin Towers, prepare them for release and find a place for them to stay. Baca notes that the Veterans Administration is already working in jails to give mentally ill or homeless veterans places to get help when they get out. Veterans account for about one-third of the homeless--about one-third of whom are mentally ill. The other two-thirds could be helped by a new Public Safety Center for the Homeless, or by the Community Transition Unit.

In Sacramento, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis) that has passed the Assembly would return the state to a system of involuntary commitment by establishing an Assisted Outpatient Treatment program for severely mentally ill people who refuse treatment. They would be under the supervision of medical personnel trained in areas such as psychiatry and social work. Funding under the bill, however, has been scaled back from $35 million to $10 million. Currently it's stalled in the Senate.

"Right now we have no ability to place these people into housing and mandate that they stay there," Molina says. "They want to sleep outside every day. Currently, there's not anything we can do because it's against the law to force them into housing."

"There's [also] an increasing new trend toward mental health courts," says Erlenbusch. In those courts, people with mental-health problems could "go before a judge who has both a law degree and some expertise in mental-health issues. Their function is not to put people into jail, but to get them into treatment and housing. It's shown some great results in the few places around the country where it's being tried."

As Bobb's investigation of Evans' death winds down, the Sheriff's Department is still placing mentally ill inmates in restraints. Baca has ordered a review of this policy. Although none of the deputies on Grant Ward's strapping team were disciplined, they've been assigned to other jobs.

Following Evans' death, Ward says he was shocked to read in a newspaper that he and his colleagues were "rogue deputies [who] think they can get away with anything." "I was so offended and saddened that anyone would ever think that of myself or my partners. Many of my prayers went out to the family of Kevin Evans--many. However, I also understand that I was just doing my job.

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