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Police Arrest Shelter Chief in Tenant Dispute

Downtown: Head of nonprofit organization is detained after she intervenes in a conflict at one of the largest of skid row's hotels.

June 08, 2002|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a new experience for Charlene Gowers, head of a nonprofit organization that runs a downtown Los Angeles skid row hotel: Caught in a dispute between two tenants, she found herself handcuffed and hauled away in a squad car Wednesday night.

As executive director of Shelter First, which owns one of the largest of skid row's hotels, Gowers, 45, says she has gotten along well with the police in the past and needs their cooperation to operate her facility on 7th Street. It houses 550 tenants, including many families with children, for rates of about $250 a month. Shelter First is supported through private donations and by several foundations.

The dispute, as both Gowers and Los Angeles Police Department spokesman John Pasquariello described it Friday, concerned whether a woman was entitled to be admitted to a room she had occupied with her husband up until a few days before. Her husband, who was at work at the time, had asked that she be kept out because he feared she would take his belongings to sell for drug money.

But Pasquariello said the officers obtained from the desk clerk rental papers showing that both the husband and wife had paid a month's rent for the room, and that she had received mail there before leaving May 31 to enter a rehab clinic.

Under those circumstances, the police spokesman said, keeping the woman out of the room constituted an illegal lockout. Gowers, who drove in from her home in Santa Monica to discuss the matter about 11 p.m., met officers in front of the hotel and told them she was ready to go to jail before agreeing to let the woman in.

"The sergeant finally asked Ms. Gowers if there was anything he could say or do to change her mind, and she said, 'No, you're going to have to take me to jail.' "

The officer then took out handcuffs and arrested her on suspicion of illegally locking out a tenant, a misdemeanor. Gowers, however, then moved to enter the hotel lobby, saying she wanted witnesses to see the arrest.

At this point, Pasquariello said, "The officer took hold of the defendant's right wrist and left sweatshirt sleeve.... He used a firm grip along with his body weight to hold her against the door to control and handcuff her."

Gowers, however, characterized the action as violent and said the officer told her, when she complained: "Shut up and get in the car."

"It was all unnecessary," she said. "The violence was shocking to me."

Pasquariello said, "We were extremely patient; we gave her opportunities to observe the law, and we subsequently used a minor amount of force. We cannot deviate from the law, especially with tenants' rights, and this woman had a legal right to be in the apartment."

Gowers said she does not intend to file a complaint against police. She was released on her own recognizance.

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