Why Armed Cops Are The First Responders For The Homelessness Crisis

LAPD officers and Bureau of Sanitation employees inspect a homeless person's tent prior to its confiscation in May 2019. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

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Talk to any police officer for more than a few minutes about homelessness, and you'll eventually hear the adage, "Well, cops aren't social workers."

It's true. Cops are not social workers, but they represent a sizable portion of the day-to-day response to Los Angeles' homelessness crisis, all on the taxpayer's dime. The result is a disproportionately high number of contacts between unhoused residents of Los Angeles and police.

Police are called when a homeless person is experiencing a mental health crisis; when housed residents and business owners complain about trespassing; for enforcement of so-called quality-of-life crimes like sitting on the sidewalk, or possessing bulky-items in the public right-of-way. They accompany city sanitation employees for homeless encampment sweeps.

It often doesn't end well. Consider this: approximately one in three times that an LAPD officer uses force, it is against an unhoused person.

Theo Henderson, an unhoused man who's currently staying in the Hollywood area, says dispatching police on calls involving unhoused residents is a bad recipe. The mere presence of a uniform is enough to doom what could be even a good-faith effort because of past traumatic encounters.

"When [the police] come, they pretend that they're concerned," Henderson said. "But it's not really concern if you interpret their presence as a veiled threat. And their presence is very triggering for people. They are the first person to answer when someone calls and says they don't want to see the unhoused person. They're the first person to run a background check, the first person to put them in handcuffs, even for their own protection."


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Now, as calls to "defund the police" make their way into the political mainstream, the long simmering calls to decriminalize homelessness and create alternative first responders, such as social workers and mental health experts, are becoming a clamor.

Among them, a petition now with almost 8,000 signatures asking the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to end its partnerships with the L.A. Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, and a proposal by the Los Angeles City Council to consider replacing armed officers in non-violent calls.

An LAPD car on Wall Street in Skid Row. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

We'll get to that petition and that city proposal in a minute. But first, some context.

There are more than 40,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city of L.A. on any given night, and more than 66,000 across the county. Though L.A. voters have invested a significant amount of money in a sprawling system of homeless services and housing, that system does not respond in real time.

Though case workers try each day to end their clients' homelessness, they are not the ones who respond to 911 calls about a person experiencing delusions of grandeur who is walking in traffic.

The police are.

How did it happen that police became first responders to the homelessness crisis? Read on.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

To answer that question, I turned to Forrest Stuart, an associate professor of Sociology at Stanford University who wrote the book, Down, Out and Under Arrest, about the policing of L.A.'s Skid Row. Stuart says there's a direct relationship between increased spending on policing and decreased spending on public services for the poor.

"By this, I mean social services, the social safety net, mental health services, housing programs," Stuart said. "When these things are firing on a high number of cylinders, we see the police having to get involved with folks with behavioral health issues, folks with mental health disorders, people suffering from substance abuse, and unhoused folks a whole lot less."

Without a social safety net, people on a downward trajectory continue falling deeper into poverty, accruing emotional, physical and mental trauma along the way.

Approximately one-in-four people who are unsheltered in Los Angeles report a long-term mental health condition, according to the latest demographic data from LAHSA. And while most people are able to take care of themselves, there reaches a point where the cumulative trauma of living outside just becomes too much.

It's at this point the police often get called, picking up the slack for the absence of a public mental healthcare system.

"If [homeless people are] receiving treatment, then they're not going to manifest the kinds of behaviors that get the cops involved," Stuart said. "They're not going to be running out into traffic, they're not going to be cursing or having some kind of delusional rants on the sidewalk.

"The first thing we have to understand is that we only see the police having to get involved in these instances throughout history precisely because we've abandoned these other programs."

CHANGING THE TRAJECTORY

Stuart said the disinvestment in social services was matched by a robust investment in law enforcement. As homelessness has increased in Southern California, that means more officers responding to more calls where someone involved potentially has a severe mental illness.

"We have a situation where many people are living on the streets, and then people call the police to intervene. And often, the police are the only people they can call," said Shane Murphy Goldsmith, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

Consider the 2015 shooting of Charley Keunang on Skid Row, which followed a robbery call that drew several LAPD officers to Keunang's tent outside the Union Rescue Mission on San Pedro Street.

When officers arrived, they instructed Keunang to get up against a wall, but Keunang retreated to his tent. The situation devolved into a physical scuffle after officers broke down the tent. As officers piled on top of Keunang, one shouted that Keunang had grabbed hold of his gun. Keunang was shot six times, and died at the scene.

LAPD officers at the scene of Charley Keunang's death in 2015. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

In 2018, the city of L.A. settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Keunang's family for almost $2 million. (You can watch the body-camera footage here.)

In the wake of the shooting, which was denounced by a nascent Black Lives Matter movement, LAPD officers were instructed to treat unhoused residents with "compassion and empathy." The department pledged to offer more training to its officers to help them deescalate situations in which they're interacting with someone who is mentally ill.

Now, by 2020, there is no shortage of acronyms — the Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU) and Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Teams (SMART) among others — to describe the various programs, initiatives and special teams devoted to responding to "mental illness" calls, to which the LAPD responded more than 20,000 times in 2019. (Those numbers do not differentiate calls involving housed and unhoused residents).

In any case, people keep dying, such as earlier this year when 31-year-old Victor Valencia was shot and killed while holding a bicycle part in West L.A. Valencia's sister told L.A. Taco that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia several years ago.

"There's no question that the police are involved in things that are not trained to be involved in," said the police commission's Goldsmith. "I believe that, in many of these cases, they should be handled by social workers, outreach workers — people who are trained to help people experiencing homelessness get the solutions that they need."

Stuart, the Stanford sociologist, disagrees that more training will fix the problem. He says that simply retraining officers represents what people in his field call a "path dependent process."

"Once we're headed in a particular direction, we're essentially just strapping on additions or agenda items or edits or revisions to that trajectory that we're heading on, rather than actually changing the trajectory," Stuart said.

That is, instead of rewriting who responds to non-violent calls involving homeless people, or calls involving someone who is mentally ill, police are offered another training program and sent back to the job.

Stuart believes it's a fundamental mismatch: "Once the police are involved, the process is done. It's over. Like, for that person, their life is only going to get worse."

USE OF FORCE INCIDENTS AGAINST HOMELESS PEOPLE ARE INCREASING

Nowhere is that mismatch more clear than in LAPD's statistics recording how officers deploy force.

Approximately one-in-three times that an LAPD officer uses force, it is against an unhoused person.

Between 2017-19, both the number and proportion of police use-of-force against unhoused Angelenos increased, according to LAPD statistics. In 2019, fully 34% of all incidents in which a Los Angeles police officer used force was against a person experiencing homelessness. In 2018 it was about 32.5%, and the prior year about 28.2%.

In raw numbers, Los Angeles police reported using force against someone experiencing homelessness 801 times in 2019. The vast majority of these incidents are documented as "non-categorical," which means police used "non-deadly force" against another person, though categorical uses of force do occur. ("Categorical" incidents the use of deadly force.)

At the Feb. 11 meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, LAPD Commander Donald Graham, who is the department's homeless coordinator, offered commissioners a breakdown of the types of non-deadly force used in the 181 non-categorical incidents against an unhoused person in the final quarter of 2019.

"What we found is that if you look at the type of [non-categorical] force used, 82% of the time, bodily force only was used as the force, which includes firm grip, bodyweight and takedowns," Graham said. "A taser was deployed 19 times as representing 10% of the incidents, a chemical agent was deployed 1% of the time, and beanbags or 40 millimeter [projectiles] were deployed 12 times, representing 6.5%."

Graham said that officers injured a homeless person in 40% of those incidents, but noted that was lower than the 55% injury-rate for non-categorical uses of force against someone who isn't homeless.

UNARMED MODEL OF CRISIS RESPONSE

This month, the Los Angeles City Council proposed replacing armed police officers on non-violent calls for service. The proposal asks city staffers, in coordination with the LAPD, LAHSA and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, to "develop an unarmed model of crisis response" for emergency calls involving incidents such as a mental health crisis, substance abuse, or neighbor disputes.

The motion is an acknowledgement of many of the demands made by activists for decades. Though, for now, it's only a motion that calls for a report. It does not require any immediate change.

Meanwhile, police involvement with Los Angeles unhoused residents extends beyond just calling 911 for someone who needs immediate help. Thousands of complaints from residents and businesses about unsightly homeless encampments play a major role too.

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

The other big bucket of police involvement with Southern California's unhoused community is tied to the city's "Cleaning And Rapid Engagement" (CARE) program, intended to respond to constituent 311 complaints about homeless encampments. These actions, referred to colloquially as a "cleanup" or "sweep," rely on police enforcement of various municipal laws regulating conduct and property on public property.

Theo Henderson, the unhoused man quoted earlier, says the sweeps are less about cleaning an area, and more about displacing those in the areas they target.

"The thing called a 'CARE' cleanup, or any other acronym, is basically a displacement tool to terrorize, dismantle and advocate an unhealthy person from a particular area after neighbors or businesses complain," Henderson said.

Henderson moved to Hollywood after he was effectively driven out of Chinatown — his longtime home prior to losing stable housing — earlier this year during a city cleanup. Henderson says enforcing laws against people for existing in public space amounts to a civil rights violation.

"Why are they to move along? They're American citizens. I have a right to be at the park like everyone else," Henderson said. "To tell people to move along is to insinuate that they've been there too long, they're criminals, and they're not wanted in the area. That's a civil rights violation."

How Los Angeles' handles complaints about the presence of unhoused people has long been criticized by activists and advocates for the homeless because they increase contacts with law enforcement and destroy personal property. Last year, the Services Not Sweeps coalition began a campaign to end what they say is a destructive process that further erodes trust within L.A.'s unhoused community.

According to police data, 11,585 tents were "processed" during encampment cleanups in 2019, up from about 9,000 the year before.

Calls to reform the cleanup system escalated this month when a LAHSA regional supervisor penned a letter calling on the group's executive leadership to break ties with the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff. LAHSA, the agency responsible for overseeing homeless services in Los Angeles County, sends homeless outreach workers along with law enforcement during encampment cleanups.

Kristy Lovich, the petition's author, supervises street-based outreach in Central Los Angeles. She says tying outreach to encampment cleanups diminishes trust between social service workers and the unhoused residents they're trying to help.

"When we are standing next to people who are taking up enforcement explicitly, we're essentially co-signing on that," Lovich said. "We're saying that we agree with this response to unsheltered homelessness.

Lovich's letter articulates a strong response towards police enforcement of municipal ordinances that allow for the confiscation of personal property, and require unhoused people to simply move somewhere else. Her letter went viral, and has since attracted nearly 8,000 signatures on a Change.org petition page. Lovich has since taken leave from LAHSA.

She says the coordination between the organization and local law enforcement goes against the agency's own guidance, which recommends against enforcing criminal ordinances to regulate conduct in public space.

"It's very clear that the [LAHSA] guidance for municipal responses says [not to] criminalize. It says sweeps do not work," Lovich said. "And yet, here we are devoting probably a third of our teams to these operations."

LAHSA has issued a public response to Lovich's letter. In a statement, the agency did not say whether or not it would disavow its working relationship with law enforcement, and praised outreach workers for their work:

"They deliver services with the compassion and empathy that is needed to help someone with the complex task of ending their homelessness. However, they don't work 24/7, and law enforcement does."

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to LAHSA's "contracts" with law enforcement, however LAHSA itself doesn't contract directly with law enforcement, which is a function of local government. The article has been updated to reflect LAHSA's "working relationship" with law enforcement. LAist regrets the error.