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2 Strategies on Policing Homeless

LAPD chief touts arrests for crimes downtown. Sheriff says sweeps won't solve the big problem.

October 06, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

The debate over what to do about the homeless problem in downtown Los Angeles is informed -- and complicated -- by the decidedly divergent views on the issue voiced by Los Angeles' two top law enforcement officials.

When Sheriff Lee Baca talks about his goal of ending homelessness in Los Angeles County, he sounds more like an idealistic social worker than the head of the largest sheriff's department in the country.

He has set up summits to strategize on how to better serve the homeless and mentally ill and has tried for years to establish a tent city near County Jail for homeless people who have been released. He has said he doesn't believe that arresting the homeless for minor violations is the best way to solve the problem.

Police Chief William J. Bratton has adopted a tougher stance, saying he wants to root out "aberrant behavior" within the homeless population. He has conducted downtown sweeps looking for parole violators and vigorously enforced statutes prohibiting public urination and sleeping on public sidewalks.

Long an advocate of the "broken windows" method of policing, which holds that punishing lesser offenses leads to reductions in major crimes, Bratton targeted downtown's skid row as one of five proving grounds in the city for the theory.

The two men's differing takes on the problem derive from both their backgrounds and their constituencies.

Baca tends to deal with homeless people when they enter his jail system -- and has often said fewer of them would be there if there were better services for the mentally disturbed and addicts. He speaks quixotically about the issue, hoping not only to reduce homelessness but to eliminate it entirely.

Bratton deals with homeless people on the street level and has to field the complaints from merchants and residents about crime and harassment -- especially in increasingly gentrifying downtown. As top cop in New York and Boston, he gained a reputation for cleaning up blighted communities that had large homeless populations.

While the two men praise each other's accomplishments, they also tend to cast blame for some of skid row's problems in the opposite direction.

Bratton denounces what he calls "the sheriff's unwillingness or inability to return people to the communities from whence they came."

Many of those who prey on homeless people, he said, arrive on skid row directly from the sheriff's custody at County Jail. In addition, Bratton says the early release of inmates from county lockups has created a revolving door.

Baca, for his part, says he doesn't believe that arresting the homeless for minor infractions -- which has swelled the already overcrowded jails -- will make any dent in what he considers deeper societal problems.

"I'm not here to say that it's wrong," he said. "But I'm here to say it's definitely not the best way to solve homelessness."

Despite their different perspectives, the two men vow to work in tandem on the issue, even serving together on a blue-ribbon panel on the subject. But the commission is more than a year behind in issuing recommendations -- and officials said they were unlikely to make their report before February.

That's not the only homeless initiative to stall. Baca created his own panel on homelessness two years ago. But none of its seven recommendations -- including encouraging local governments to build more shelters in industrial areas and provide more medical and psychological services at shelters -- has been achieved.

Some observers believe that for Los Angeles to effectively combat homelessness, officials must find a middle ground between the visions of Baca and Bratton: providing people with services that might get them off the street while also holding them accountable for their actions.

Without such a compromise, Los Angeles will continue its cycle of rotating the homeless through the justice system, only to have them hit skid row again with few prospects for something better, said Peter Dreier, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College.

"As long as you don't have an adequate supply of housing and social services for the homeless, they will be on the street," he said. "And the police will have to deal with them."

*

Baca, a career Sheriff's Department employee, said his concerns date back to his days on patrol in the 1960s and '70s, when he found homeless and mentally ill people on the streets and had to make tough decisions about how to deal with them. When he took control of the department in 1999, he made the homeless population a top priority.

"The homeless have no voice," he said in an interview. "I'm going to be that voice until I see the kind of results and action that needs to happen."

He concedes that he hasn't achieved the results he has sought.

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