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130 Arrested in Sweep of Skid Row

Many are parole violators, say police, who add that homeless were not the target. The operation involves more than 250 officers.

November 21, 2002|Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

More than 250 officers moved through downtown Los Angeles' skid row in raids that began before dawn Wednesday, arresting more than 130 people, including many ex-convicts who had violated parole, Los Angeles police said.

Some homeless people sleeping outdoors were rousted in the operation. Police said the move had been planned for two months, but it came just 48 hours after business organizations complained about the number of homeless people in the area, saying the concentration threatened efforts to improve the downtown economy. The number of arrests quickly overwhelmed the jail facilities at Parker Center, the LAPD's headquarters, and forced police to use buses as temporary detention housing.

Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said Wednesday's operation was a move by Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor James K. Hahn, along with other agencies, to deal with the soaring number of parole violators downtown.

The message, said McDonnell, is that violators cannot avoid prison by living on skid row. "People either behave or go elsewhere," he said.

Police searched the blocks bounded by 1st, Spring and 7th streets and the Los Angeles River. Many of those detained were arrested on the streets and in low-cost hotels around 5th Street, an area known as "the Nickel."

As McDonnell spoke, parolees in handcuffs could be seen being led into a tented area behind Parker Center, where buses waited to take them to County Jail facilities for hearings.

LAPD officials said police did not approach people at random. Instead, accompanied by parole officers and working with information about parolees gleaned from several days of surveillance in the area, they questioned several hundred people Wednesday to determine their identities and whether they were in violation of their parole terms.

Of those taken into custody, about half were found inside buildings, while the others were on the streets.

About 60% were arrested on suspicion of violating specific conditions of their parole. Parole conditions often include pledges by the parolee to live in a certain place or to avoid associating with certain groups of people, such as gang members or former associates who have been convicted of crimes.

About 40% of the cases involved parolees found to be in possession of narcotics or weapons, authorities said.

Parolee violators can be returned to state prison with just a jail hearing but no formal court proceedings.

"This operation was not aimed at the homeless population; rather it was aimed at many of those who seek to victimize the homeless," said Lt. Horace Frank, an LAPD spokesman. "Those arrested were found to be in possession of heroin, rock cocaine and other contraband, including weapons."

"Some homeless were arrested," said LAPD Officer Jack Richter, "but they fit into specific [criminal] categories."

Scores of officers from the LAPD's Central Bureau worked in conjunction with the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, state Corrections and Justice departments, Los Angeles County Probation Department and California Highway Patrol.

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, questioned the police tactics. "What the police are doing here has been tried in other cities and failed," she said.

But others welcomed the move.

Bud Hayes, executive director of SRO Housing Corp., which operates 22 residential hotels, said that there were no sweeps at his firm's properties but that he believes the operation was a good idea. "The elimination of parole violators or predators is essential to making life better for the homeless and all other stakeholders in downtown," he said.

Diana Warren, vice president for public policy at the Central Cities Assn., which represents 300 businesses, mostly downtown, also said that the action will improve safety in the area. She said she hopes that more foot and bike patrols will follow.

"We've seen a growing population of people living on the streets, who are being victimized or [are] part of a criminal element," Warren said. "LAPD and county enforcement is part of the solution, which includes getting people off the streets and into shelters."

Officials estimate that 9,000 to 15,000 people live on the streets of Central Los Angeles -- as many as 3,000 to 5,000 of them on skid row. The area "has the highest concentration of parolees in the state, almost 2,000," said Capt. Charles Beck.

Bratton has said the concentration of homeless people downtown is the worst he has seen. He said the LAPD needs to create a homeless-outreach unit.

At the same time, the city is trying to attract people to live in renovated loft buildings downtown.

But McDonnell said the LAPD was simply enforcing the law, not trying to sweep homeless people out. "The problem in this area is, parolees haven't been living up to their conditions of parole," he said.

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