Los Angeles city leaders launched a campaign a year ago to reduce crime in downtown's skid row by deploying 50 additional police officers and declaring they would step up prosecutions.
On Wednesday, even as officials declared success, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton acknowledged that the Safer City Initiative essentially has shifted some of downtown's homeless and mentally ill residents to other parts of Los Angeles.
"Is there some displacement? Certainly," Bratton said at a news conference where he, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials touted the drop in skid row crime.
"But what's wrong with that in some respects? Why should one square mile of the city be impacted by something that's effectively a countywide problem?" Bratton said. "So if there is displacement, all well and good."
The police chief characterized the displacement as "minimal," but his comments added fuel to a continuing debate over how best to address one of the city's most violent and chronically troubled areas.
Homeless advocates and those who provide services to downtown's indigent community argue that the city should de-emphasize policing and instead focus greater resources on healthcare, shelter beds and affordable housing.
Stepped-up policing, they said, has only pushed the homeless farther away from vital social services concentrated in the skid row area.
The director of a needle-exchange program said, for example, that his client load has dropped 25% since the police crackdown began.
"A lot of people are getting shortchanged because of the policies we have downtown," said Mark Casanova, executive director of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles. "At what cost does the safer city come?"
A report released last week by a UCLA law professor said that crime has dropped since the additional police officers arrived but that most of the roughly 1,000 citations issued each month were for jaywalking and loitering. Many of those who received tickets were being jailed for failing to pay fines, the report said.
"If this is meant to change behavior, it is not working," said professor Gary Blasi, the report's author.
On one point most everyone agrees: Skid row has long been a magnet for drug dealers, gang members and itinerant travelers who prey on its vulnerable residents, many of whom suffer mental illnesses.
Villaraigosa, Bratton and other leaders entered the fray in September 2006 with the Safer City Initiative while police and city prosecutors clamped down on businesses that allowed drug dealers and prostitution to fester.
The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the initiative in court, seeking to extend an injunction that would limit the department's ability to search skid row residents. U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson ruled in April that some police tactics were unconstitutional.
Despite the legal bickering, the effort has had a noticeable effect: The number of people sleeping on downtown streets has declined from a peak of 1,876 in mid-September 2006 to 737, according to police. Criminal activity also has dissipated.
Bratton reported Wednesday that serious crime in skid row dropped 32% during the last 12 months. In comparison, serious crime has dropped 4.2% citywide so far in 2007. Even though people have dispersed from skid row, they have had no real effect on crime in other parts of Los Angeles, Bratton said.
The police chief also said that fewer people were dying on skid row: Sixty-eight perished for reasons other than homicide during the first nine months of this year, compared with 92 during the same time period in 2006.
Villaraigosa seized on those and other statistics Wednesday as proof that the skid row initiative was working. The mayor said his administration has made downtown affordable housing a priority, although he could not say how many units had been built or opened since he took office more than two years ago.
"We launched the Safer City Initiative in skid row because conditions there were out of control. Violence was rampant and the homeless were being preyed upon on a daily basis," Villaraigosa said. "We're taking a proactive and progressive approach to not only preserving housing where it's needed most, but we're expanding housing with services and support that help a homeless person get back on track."
Villaraigosa and Bratton were joined at the news conference by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, Councilwoman Jan Perry, who serves a district that includes downtown, and Councilman Jack Weiss, who chairs a public safety committee. They were flanked by enlarged pictures of skid row taken last month and a year ago that showed the disappearance of homeless encampments and people doing drugs in the open.
On the sidewalk outside the news conference at L.A. Mart, members of the Los Angeles Community Action Network chanted "No more Jim Crow on skid row" as they marched with signs that said "Addiction is a disease, not a crime."
Pete White, the network's co-director, said police presence has taken a psychological toll on skid row residents, many of whom disappear during the day only to return at night.
"It's created a situation where long-term residents of color feel they are under siege," he said.