The LAPD's aggressive campaign to clean up skid row, which has resulted in 5,000 arrests in four months, is being challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, which charges that officers harass and unfairly detain and search homeless people.
The ACLU of Southern California, seeking to extend a court injunction that would limit the Los Angeles Police Department's ability to search skid row residents, presented testimony from more than a dozen homeless people who say they were mistreated and had their civil rights violated.
The stakes are high: The LAPD flooded skid row with more than 50 officers last fall in hopes of reducing crime and blight. Since then, crime has decreased along with the area's homeless population, which according to the LAPD's census stands at around 800, compared with 1,800 in September.
Four years ago, the ACLU successfully blocked LAPD Chief William J. Bratton's earlier plan to clean up skid row with an ordinance banning overnight street camping.
The organization now is charging that the LAPD's Safer City Initiative, an effort to clean up downtown through aggressive policing, has come at the expense of civil liberties for many residents of the skid row area, particularly the poor and homeless.
The ACLU alleges that it is a common practice for police to stop people, question them about their parole or probation status, and often handcuff them and search them without any reasonable suspicion of a crime.
"The police aren't obeying the law. They don't seem to know the law," said Carol Sobel, one of the civil rights attorney handling the case. The people they stopped "happened to be poor. They happened to be the homeless."
Capt. Andrew Smith, the head of the LAPD's Central Division, denied the ACLU charges. He said that his officers don't ask people if they are on probation or parole without reasonable suspicion of a crime.
"Usually they are violating 41.18 (d) [blocking a sidewalk] or jaywalking or committing a violation -- that is when the issue comes up," he said.
The ACLU and other civil rights attorneys are trying to persuade a U.S. District Court judge to extend an injunction, first issued in 2003, that barred police from stopping or searching skid row residents without reasonable suspicion that they have either committed a crime or are violating their parole or probation.
U.S. District Court Judge Dean D. Pregerson is reviewing the ACLU's request and has temporarily extended the injunction.
At issue is whether Los Angeles police officers' stops are based on a reasonable suspicion of a crime or nothing more than a pretext to search someone.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1968 held that officers may stop and frisk someone, if they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has taken place or is about to take place, without violating the 4th Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.
The debate comes at a delicate time for the city, which has received much praise from business leaders and others about the effects of the Safer City Initiative on crime and blight.
The Safer City Initiative is one of Bratton's signature urban reform tools, and he had already had success using it to reduce the crime in MacArthur Park, along Hollywood Boulevard and in Baldwin Village before rolling it out downtown in September.
On skid row, the campaign called for beefed-up law enforcement and greater follow-through by the city attorney's office -- particularly for drug-related offenses. It also promised better street lighting and increased sidewalk cleaning, along with a campaign to create more affordable housing and homeless shelter space. Crime is down 18% in the downtown area since the operation took effect.
But ACLU lawyers and homeless advocates charge that police overstepped their bounds.
"The city's promise to target crime, rather than the condition of poverty and homelessness on skid row, has proved ephemeral," the ACLU motion states. Police "were engaging in a widespread practice of searching the residents of skid row and ... were arbitrarily stopping, detaining and searching individuals and groups of individuals who appeared to be homeless or to be residents of skid row, without any prior knowledge whether the person was on parole or probation, and without any reasonable suspicion that they were engaged in criminal activity."
Paul Johnson, a 10-year skid row resident, wrote in a declaration that was included in the ACLU's case that a person's parole status is "the first question they ask after asking your name. I hear them asking other people if they are [on] parole or probation all the time," he wrote.
Johnson said he was detained because there was a warrant for another Paul Johnson. The officer who took him into custody and later released him could not state why he originally stopped and questioned Johnson.