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Unsettling skid row

September 20, 2006

ALL LEGAL SETTLEMENTS ARE IMPERFECT, even to the parties that agree to them. But the city's proposed settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union over how the police can enforce the law on skid row gives away too much -- in practice and in principle -- and brings the city too little in return.

The compromise, which goes before the City Council today for a vote, has much to like -- especially across-the-board support from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William J. Bratton and the ACLU. The latter two have been feuding for nearly four years over how best to alleviate crime and homelessness downtown. The ACLU won a decision in April in federal court that the city's ordinance against sleeping on sidewalks amounted to cruel and unusual punishment when enforced on skid row.

Since then, the police have essentially thrown up their hands, and the area has devolved into even more chaos, while a court-appointed mediator has worked with the two sides to craft a settlement. It is tempting to see the compromise as a last-chance effort to get the parties on the same page.

The deal would allow crime-ridden skid row a looser set of laws than the rest of the city, allowing for sleeping on public sidewalks between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. This double standard would be acceptable if the city could continue its legal challenge against the court decision, but the terms of the settlement require that the appeal be dropped. Because there is no guarantee the ACLU or other parties won't use the precedent of this case to challenge enforcement elsewhere in the city, that's a compromise too far -- especially when it's unclear that the deal will improve the culture of lawlessness downtown.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes skid row, has introduced a thoughtful alternative. Essentially, her proposal would accept the settlement's terms but continue the city's appeal, while also continuing work on drafting a sleeping ordinance that all or most parties can tolerate. Whereas the current settlement is a leap of faith with no safety valve if it fails to work as promised, Perry's plan would allow both sides to reassess in several months' time.

Bratton contends that ditching the appeal and agreeing to the nighttime exception is worth it. He would finally have a clear legal tool to help bring the area under control and persuade treatment-resistant street dwellers to accept housing and services.

Maybe so. But it's also possible that this experiment won't work and that the homeless and the criminals they attract will find they can survive just fine with their tents up only at night. Then the city will be left with an inadequate tool, a homeless problem as bad as before -- and no legal options.

Solving this dispute will not solve skid row's homeless problem. As Bratton said earlier this week, the police "are not the solution to the problems of skid row. It is a much larger social and societal issue." But it's also true that no progress can be made on skid row until crime is brought under control.

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