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Crackdown cuts skid row death toll, Bratton says

The chief credits LAPD action against homeless encampments. Arrests for drug offenses are thought to be helping cut the overdose rate.

June 08, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

The number of people dying of natural causes and drug overdoses on Los Angeles' skid row has been cut by more than half since the Los Angeles Police Department began a crackdown on homeless encampments in the downtown area, Police Chief William J. Bratton said Thursday.

In a routine briefing of the 50 extra police officers deployed to the Central Division station on skid row, Bratton said 15 people have died on the streets of natural causes, including exposure, in the first four months of this year, compared with 34 during the same period in 2006.

Bratton said seven people have died of drug overdoses in 2007 compared with 15 during the same period in 2006.

More than 2,000 arrests made during a crackdown against drug offenses on skid row are thought to be helping reduce the overdose rate.

"You produced those numbers, those lives saved," Bratton told the officers.

Capt. Andy Smith said officers require homeless campers to move at daybreak, so it is no longer common for police to find dead bodies in tents that would have sat untouched on sidewalks for days or weeks.

The LAPD's Safer Cities Initiative was launched in September 2006 with the deployment of 50 additional officers who have enforced drug laws as well as a ban on sleeping on sidewalks during the daytime. The initiative targets the downtown area bounded by 3rd and 7th streets, and Main and Alameda streets.

As a result of the expanded enforcement effort, the number of people sleeping most nights on skid row dropped from 1,876 to 700, with many entering shelters or moving to other neighborhoods, Smith said.

Since the crackdown, police have seen violent crime drop from 566 attacks in the first four months of 2006 to 365 cases during the same period this year. During the first six months of this year, there have been no homicides in the targeted area. That figure compares with one during the same period in 2006.

"We've seen a tremendous transformation in the downtown area, especially in skid row," Smith told his officers. "The Safer Cities Initiative is saving lives."

The drop in overdoses was not a surprise to Mark Casanova, executive director of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, but he said the numbers may be misleading.

Casanova has seen a 30% reduction in the number of people using a needle exchange center that his group operates on skid row.

But he said those numbers and the number of overdoses may be declining because many drug users are moving to other parts of the city or are in jail.

Another result of the crackdown is that many people are being diverted to social programs as an alternative to being put behind bars for minor offenses and then released.

"The more people we help get off the streets and find services, the less chance of someone dying on the streets," said Joel John Roberts, the chief executive officer of PATH Partners, which provides shelter and other services to the homeless.

Larry Johnson, who was living in a cardboard box on skid row when he was arrested on drug charges, said he was referred to PATH Partners, which found him a bed in its Hollywood shelter. He also began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and is now in permanent housing.

"The most important thing they provided for me was shelter and food," Johnson said. "It has allowed me to get my own place."

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