LAPD orders officers to show 'compassion and empathy' to homeless people

Encounters with the city’s homeless population have long been among the most sensitive and legally fraught parts of being a Los Angeles police officer.

Police have taken a leading role over the last decade helping clean up the streets of a rapidly gentrifying downtown L.A., resulting in historic legal battles over the rights of homeless people and the limits of law enforcement. Last year, two of the most controversial L.A. Police Department use-of-force cases involved homeless men fatally shot by officers.

These interactions are often complicated by mental health and substance abuse issues suffered by homeless people, a problem that some advocates said the LAPD has struggled to effectively address.

On Tuesday, the LAPD moved to reset this relationship. The Los Angeles Police Commission approved a new policy directing LAPD officers to treat homeless people with “compassion and empathy.”

Top LAPD officials say the policy is part of a larger effort to rethink the way officers approach the city’s growing homeless population and try to ease tensions.

“It’s important on a number of levels as we begin to move forward in what I hope will be a big transition in the way that our streets appear and the way that some of the most vulnerable of the people in Los Angeles live,” Chief Charlie Beck said.

The LAPD’s move comes amid renewed efforts by city and county officials to provide housing and other services to the swelling number of people living in tents, cars and shelters across the region. An estimated 47,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, nearly two-thirds of whom live in the city of L.A.

The rules direct LAPD officers, when appropriate, to offer homeless Angelenos information about housing, medical or psychological services – yet respect their right to refuse help. It reminds officers that some homeless residents may have mental or medical conditions affecting their ability to communicate. Others, the policy say, may not carry proper identification, and may feel harassed by officers who ask for an ID.

The department is rolling out other efforts to address homelessness, including working on new outreach teams, and looking to better analyze crimes within the homeless community in hopes of preventing them from occurring, said Cmdr. Todd Chamberlain, who heads the LAPD’s homeless efforts.

The policy was meant to be a broad statement – a “philosophy more than it is the nuts and bolts,” Chamberlain recently told police commissioners. More specifics will come in future directives, he added.

But the new statement was met with some skepticism from homeless advocates.

Gary Blasi, a retired UCLA law professor who studies homelessness, said it would take more than a policy to improve interactions between officers and those living on the city’s streets. To do that, he said, the city should limit laws that unfairly criminalize situations involving homeless people – “so that the police are not involved in the first place.” 

“The policy is probably too generic to have much effect,” he said. “It … will enable the city to say that it has a humane policy while doing nothing concrete to make police actions more humane.”

Homeless advocates often accuse police of unfairly sweeping through encampments to tear down tents, take belongings, and hand out tickets or arrest those who don’t comply. The sweeps have resulted in a series of lawsuits filed against the city, with courts frequently siding with the homeless and rejecting the city’s actions to clean up sidewalks.

Still, others credit police tactics with reducing crime and blight in some parts of downtown L.A. over the last decade. Some downtown residents and businesses say the police need to step in to make sidewalks passable and deal with drug dealing and other crimes within the homeless community.

The issue of how police interact with the homeless came into focus in 1999, when an LAPD officer fatally shot a 102-pound homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell, who waved a screwdriver at police along a sidewalk near 4th Street and La Brea Avenue.

The city’s police commissioners overruled then-Police Chief Bernard Parks, saying Mitchell did not present a deadly threat to police and that therefore the shooting was out of policy. Mitchell’s death prompted protests by civil rights activists and other critics.

Last year, two deadly police shootings stoked the long-simmering tensions among the city’s homeless and their advocates, renewing criticism that officers were too quick to use heavy-handed tactics.

In March, the LAPD drew international attention after a witness posted an online video showing the fatal police shooting of a man living on skid row, the sprawling stretch of makeshift camps located not far from City Hall. The LAPD said officers opened fire after Charly Keunang, known by the name “Africa” on skid row, reached for a rookie officer’s holstered gun.

Two months later, an officer shot and killed another homeless man during a scuffle near the Venice boardwalk. Beck has publicly recommended that Officer Clifford Proctor be criminally charged in the death of Brendon Glenn, a shooting the Police Commission also determined had violated department policies for using deadly force.

The LAPD said officers are a last-resort response to a problem that goes beyond policing. It will take a multi-faceted approach, police officials say, complete with additional housing, treatment and other social services, to best help the homeless. 

“Our officers are on the front lines of this crisis. Each day, we ask them to act as members of law enforcement, social workers, psychologists … often in a single encounter,” Matt Johnson, the president of the Police Commission, said Tuesday. “The policy before us today emphasizes people’s rights and dignity, and provides a balanced, compassionate framework for the LAPD to operate under.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti also praised the initiative, noting how frequently police contact homeless residents. The policy, he said, “gives officers guidance on how to elevate those interactions into opportunities.”

The policy was a “good start,” but didn’t go far enough, said Carol Sobel, a civil rights attorney who has successfully sued the city over how it treats the homeless. The key, she said, will be for the LAPD to monitor officers to ensure they’re abiding by the new guidelines.

“We’ll believe it when we see it,” Sobel said. “You can hand out all the policies you want – that doesn’t make a difference unless you put enforcement behind it.”

kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katemather

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