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Needle Exchange Won't Be Targeted

November 11, 2005|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Department officials took steps this week to ease concerns that police had been trying to intimidate clients of a needle exchange program in Hollywood.

"We recognize that we need to continue to evolve, and we're certainly sensitive to this problem," Assistant Chief George Gascon told the Police Commission on Tuesday. "It's a matter of us finding a way trying to strike a balance between public health and reducing crime."

Needle exchange advocates at the Hollywood site recently complained of several instances in which addicts felt intimidated by the presence of police in the area.

Shoshanna Scholar, executive director of Clean Needles Now, said police visited the site three times over a five-week period since mid-September, resulting in six searches, an arrest for a parole violation and the confiscation of one man's needles. Some addicts said they now avoid the site, which is operated twice a week out of a parked SUV near Sycamore Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

In a memo the Police Commission accepted Tuesday, Police Chief William J. Bratton wrote that the department would remind officers of its policy on needle exchanges. The policy says police are not to target or observe needle exchange sites for the sole purpose of identifying and arresting people for drug-related crimes.

The city of Los Angeles has permitted and funded the exchange of used hypodermic syringes for clean replacements since 1994. Studies have shown that needle exchange programs reduce HIV infection rates because they reduce drug addicts' reliance on shared or reused needles.

Gascon said that in one case, police recruits were unaware the needle exchange existed when 14 of them walked through or near the exchange location on Oct. 20.

In his memo, Bratton wrote that police would continue to work in and around needle exchange sites. But he added that the department would ensure that in the future, it would notify officers about the specific location of needle exchange sites and remind them of the department's policy.

In addition, Bratton wrote that watch commanders would be given additional training emphasizing the department's support of needle exchanges and "ensuring the procedures and guidelines are not violated."

Scholar said she was pleased.

"All in all, I felt like we were listened to, and there was a lot of progress," Scholar said. "Ideally, if everybody sticks to protocol that was laid out by Chief Bratton, then I think we're OK."

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