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Policy Barring Drunks at County Jail Puts Cities in Bind

Times Staff Writer

Several Orange County police departments say Sheriff Brad Gates’ decision not to jail most misdemeanor suspects has put them in a serious position--stuck with a multitude of prisoners and no place to put them.

Gates, faced with a mandate from federal Judge William P. Gray to reduce the inmate population at the main Orange County Jail, began refusing to admit public drunks April 29. Two weeks later, the sheriff expanded that plan, requiring that most people arrested on misdemeanor charges be reviewed at the jail and given a ticket and released if no felony offense can be shown.

While the policy means people arrested for such offenses as prostitution, shoplifting and assault are no longer jailed, the public drunks are the most serious problem, police say. Drunks, who frequently are unable to care for themselves, can become victims of robbery or assault or wander into traffic.

The most serious effect is in beach cities and in Santa Ana, with its large transient population.

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“It’s had a tremendous impact on us, and as the year goes by, it’s going to become an increasing problem,” said Gene Hansen, Santa Ana deputy chief of police. “We’re getting into the summer months, and the transient population always rises during the summer.”

Santa Ana has already cut arrests of public drunks by about 75%, with officers often leaving otherwise-healthy drunks to sleep it off or sending them on to rescue missions. And in Orange, the city spent $4,000 to create a drunk tank to house inebriates.

Santa Ana is considering filing a lawsuit in an attempt to force the jail to accept misdemeanor prisoners, said City Manager Robert C. Bobb. He said the city would prefer not to file a lawsuit and stressed that he understands the predicament Gates faces, “but we cannot continue to allow drunks to roam the streets.”

City Atty. Edward J. Cooper said he will discuss the proposed lawsuit with the City Council on July 7 but declined to say what he would recommend. He said the potential for liability is a definite worry for cities, especially in the drunk cases.

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“It certainly could create that possibility,” Cooper said. He noted that several recent court decisions have shown that, “Once there’s a ‘special relationship’ (involving some contact between a police officer and a citizen), there may be a duty on the part of the officer to care for that person.”

Deputy County Counsel Edward N.Duran said he would enjoy tackling a lawsuit from the city, noting that it’s no surprise that Santa Ana would react so vigorously because it supplies “a large majority” of the jail’s clients.

“No matter what the City of Santa Ana does, I’m sure we will continue that policy,” Duran said. “I look eagerly forward to handling such a lawsuit because I think Judge Gray would give us all the protection we need.”

He added that he would probably attempt to have Santa Ana’s lawsuit consolidated with the original lawsuit addressing overcrowding at the jail. “Then I’d let Santa Ana argue their case to Judge Gray,” he said.

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Hansen said Santa Ana officers will house drunks in one of the department’s three small and ill-equipped holding cells only if the person is potentially violent or will take them to a hospital if their condition warrants it. If willing friends or relatives can be found, they will be released to them.

Effect on Enforcement

The officers occasionally transport drunks to missions for the homeless or the Salvation Army, but those facilities are also overcrowded. If the drunk can prove he has a place of residence, he may be put in a taxi and sent home.

The problem has had a direct effect on enforcement procedures, as was evident during the handling of a domestic dispute call in Santa Ana late last week.

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In the kitchen of an Orange Avenue home, a distraught wife sobbed while a Santa Ana police officer took notes and attempted to calmly assess the situation. “Just take him away. I can’t take it no more,” the woman told Officer Keith Eldridge.

Her husband sat on the living room couch, a dozen empty beer bottles scattered around the room. Shortly before officers arrived, he had attempted to choke his wife and then slapped her, she said.

Two months ago, before Gates’ order not to take misdemeanor cases, the man would have been taken to County Jail, where he would have had ample time to sober up before returning home. But since the officer knew that the jail would not accept the man on a misdemeanor assault or intoxication booking, Eldridge advised the woman that her only recourse, if she didn’t want to see her husband again, was to seek a court restraining order.

Survey of Cities

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In a survey conducted by the county Health Care Agency, six cities indicated that they were experiencing no problems under the new jail guidelines, said Susan Zepeda, deputy director of public health for alcohol services. However, nine--Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Tustin, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Orange, Westminster, Irvine and Stanton--characterized the effect as “serious” or “potentially serious.” The six that said they were unaffected are such cities as Huntington Beach and Anaheim, which have their own jail facilities and continue to handle public inebriates the same way they always have, she said.

Zepeda said her department would like to see money allocated for a detoxification center and “sobering-up stations” where police could take drunks. On Friday, the county grand jury endorsed that stance, urging the Board of Supervisors to “leave the 14th Century” and create four sobering-up stations.

Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Dick Olson stressed that Gates has “gone on record” several times in favor of the detoxification center concept. He said sheriff’s deputies are under the same constraints as other departments and, in most cases, find a friend or relative of the drunks that they pick up to care for them.

Often, drunks end up at the Santa Ana Rescue Mission on Walnut Avenue, which has filled all its 38 beds every night for years, according to executive director John Lands. He said the public generally doesn’t realize that there is any transient problem in affluent Orange County. “If we had a 100 beds, we could probably sleep a 100 people every night” he said. Lands said he agreed that the ultimate solution lies in a detoxification facility.

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Detoxification Centers

Garden Grove Police Chief Frank Kessler noted that other states, such as Arizona, where he served as Tucson assistant police chief, house the most serious drunk cases in “detox” centers. California’s Legislature has endorsed that concept but never approved funding for it.

“California has always prided itself as the most progressive state in the nation on law enforcement issues. I say ‘bull.’ . . . Not while we still have no system to adequately handle common drunks,” Kessler said. He said he believes detoxification centers would save taxpayers “millions of dollars” by alleviating the problem for police and jail authorities.

Kessler stressed that his department has an even larger problem because the police can no longer jail prostitutes, who ply their trade along Harbor Boulevard. He said the lack of jail time removes an effective deterrent for that activity.

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The reality of drunks lying in parks and other areas is likely to bring the problem of alcohol abuse home to county residents, Zepeda said. “What we’re going through now is almost an awareness stage,” she said. “When the main jail was available, I’m not so sure that people were aware of the extent of the problem.”

In many cases, officers do what they did last Thursday night when a transient was discovered passed out on a city street. After having the paramedics check him out, the officers propped him up on a bus bench and went on their way.

“Sometimes there’s nothing we can do but let them lie where they are,” Santa Ana’s Hansen said. He added that drunk-in-public arrests have fallen from a rate of about 280 a month, before the new jail policy, to about 70.

In Orange, the city has spent about $4,000 to refit a holding cell to accommodate drunks, including padding, a specially constructed toilet and video cameras, Capt. Dean Richards said. Officers occasionally have to spend time watching the drunks to make sure nothing happens to them, he said, but the city has also resorted to calling in reserve officers to act as jailers.

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An Orange police officer can be tied up for as long as four hours on a drunk case, he said, “dramatically increasing” the average police response time. “It’s put us in the business of baby-sitting drunks,” he said.


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