The city attorney should challenge a court ruling barring the arrest of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Tuesday.
Bratton, however, downplayed the effect of the ruling, saying LAPD officers are focused primarily on addressing serious crime among the homeless in downtown L.A.'s skid row, not their sleeping arrangements.
"There have been 58 arrests for this so far this year with this law," he said, speaking before the Police Commission. "The idea we are somehow arresting dozens of people every day is garbage."
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that unless adequate shelter is available for L.A.'s homeless people, such arrests amount to cruel and unusual punishment and violate the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The decision was based on a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of six downtown Los Angeles homeless people, and appeared to strike another blow to Bratton's long-delayed plan to clean up skid row by removing homeless encampments.
Calling the ruling "a very poor decision," Bratton told the commission that he would urge City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo to mount an appeal.
His concerns echoed those of City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose downtown district includes skid row. Calling the lawsuit that prompted the ruling "nutty," Perry has argued that the city seeks merely to restore order to an area plagued by lawlessness, and she has encouraged Delgadillo to challenge the appeals court ruling.
Delgadillo has yet to decide on a response to the ruling. But he told reporters Monday that he feared it could help make skid row a magnet for predators.
The city attorney could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or seek a review by a larger panel of the 9th Circuit.
Bratton told the commission that the power to arrest people for sleeping on sidewalks is helpful, but not essential, to policing downtown. "It's a very effective tool," he said. But "this is not going to prevent the Los Angeles Police Department from enforcing the law on skid row. It will have minimal effect on what we are trying to do there."
Capt. Andy Smith, whose command includes the downtown area, said that officers use sleeping on sidewalks as probable cause to question people, and that the practice has led to the discovery of other crimes. He said his officers do not apply the law when beds in shelters aren't available.
In ruling against the city's policy, Bratton said, the court of appeals is contributing to a permissive climate that ultimately will worsen the problem of homelessness. "I wish the judges would come down to skid row and see the situation," he said in an interview after the commission meeting.
Besides challenging the court ruling, Bratton said the city also might attempt to address the ACLU's concerns by narrowing the ordinance.
Bratton's most vigorous plans for downtown have been on hold for three years, and city leaders have recently backed a policy they consider less aggressive.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said that he wanted a less contentious approach to the problem of homelessness, and recently appointed Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU's Southern California affiliate, to the city and county Homeless Services Authority.
Villaraigosa and downtown business leaders have voiced support for a moderate approach suggested by criminologist George Kelling that would target the drug trade and street crime but allow homeless encampments to remain. Bratton is weighing the Kelling plan against a more aggressive one proposed by Assistant Police Chief George Gascon.
After the court's decision, Villaraigosa said he hoped the ruling would allow the city to finally move forward with a humane approach that targeted crime without making criminals out of transients who have nowhere else to live. The lawsuit was filed two years before Villaraigosa's election in 2005.
At least one commissioner appeared unmoved by Bratton's vehemence Tuesday. "I don't see [the decision] as draconian as you do," said Police Commissioner Andrea Sheridan Ordin. "I think it will take a while to determine what it means."
She asked the chief to report on all the resources that can be brought to bear on the problem.
Bratton said Tuesday that regardless of the court action, he planned to beef up policing on skid row. "I will be announcing shortly to the commission an effort to put a lot more police resources into that area," he said.