Amid complaints from city officials that drug-dealing and alcohol abuse are out of control in West Hollywood’s two main parks, at least 16 people have been arrested as part of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crackdown in the parks in the last two weeks.
“We’ve been asked (by city officials) to clean up the parks, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Capt. Rachel Burgess, who supervises the West Hollywood sheriff’s station.
Sheriff’s officials said 10 of the arrests occurred at West Hollywood Park, where the city operates a temporary shelter for homeless people and where an increasing number of the homeless have congregated in recent months. Another six people were arrested at Plummer Park.
The crackdown so far has been aimed at stricter enforcement of a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew, and the department will soon begin using plainclothes sheriff’s deputies in the parks to reduce drug- and alcohol-related problems, Burgess said.
‘Clearly Out of Control’
“If you’re going to do something about the drug problem out there, which is clearly out of control, you’ve got to use undercover officers. There’s no other way,” Burgess said.
The use of plainclothes deputies in the parks has long been a sensitive matter in West Hollywood, where before the city’s incorporation in 1984 gays often complained of being harassed by plainclothes officers making lewd-conduct arrests.
The issue emerged again last month after plainclothes deputies arrested a stockbroker and another man in West Hollywood Park on lewd-conduct charges in response to what Burgess said were complaints from the public about sex acts in the park.
City Councilman Steve Schulte accused the Sheriff’s Department of violating an “unwritten agreement,” which he and others said was established in 1984, that the department would not use plainclothes deputies to make such arrests.
He and other council members said this week that they do not want undercover deputies in the new crackdown to make lewd-conduct arrests.
“Their use is going to be directed specifically at drug- and alcohol-related problems, and that’s clearly being done with the council’s recognition and approval,” City Manager Paul Brotzman said.
“It’s our assumption that if the undercover personnel want to stay anonymous, they will not be conducting arrests, including any that might involve lewd conduct, directly. . . . They will bring uniformed personnel in,” he said.
Burgess said most of those arrested recently were charged with curfew violations, and others were arrested for alcohol or drug-related offenses.
Park Rule Enforcement
City Council members asked the Sheriff’s Department to step up enforcement of park rules, including the curfew, during a council retreat Feb. 27 aimed at setting goals for dealing with some of the city’s more pressing problems.
“The subject of what to do about the parks came up in the context of the council’s comparing notes on what some of the problem areas were and what needed to be done about them,” Brotzman said. “The council has for some time felt that enforcement of park rules has not been strong enough.”
Often praised for being sensitive to the plight of homeless people, the council was sharply criticized last September by members of the homeless community after approving new park regulations that the homeless said discriminate against them.
The regulations outlawed such things as erecting tents, hanging clothes and blankets on walls and shrubs, and using drinking fountains for “other than (their) intended purpose.”
For months, residents and merchants near West Hollywood Park had complained about the proliferation of shopping carts, encampments in grassy areas, fires and the use of the park’s drinking fountains for bathing and washing dishes.
The city is operating the temporary shelter for up to 50 people a night at West Hollywood Park Auditorium until a $1.2-million permanent shelter, planned for a warehouse on the city’s east side, is opened early next year.
Increase in Homeless
The number of homeless people encamped in West Hollywood Park during the day has swelled dramatically in the 10 months since the temporary shelter opened, with many of the shelter’s residents having nowhere else to go.
Shelter officials say that an average of 30 people a night are housed at the shelter. By some estimates, at least twice as many homeless people use the park during the day.
In addition, city employees estimate that a dozen or more homeless people who are not allowed into the shelter because of drug or alcohol abuse continue to sleep in West Hollywood Park most nights.
City officials hope that once the permanent shelter is opened, it will siphon off much of the transient population in and around West Hollywood Park.
Until now, city officials have tried to strike a middle ground between those who say the city is not doing enough to help the homeless and other park users and parents who have complained that West Hollywood Park has become unsafe for children.
‘Example of Harassment’
Sam Weinstein, an advocate for the homeless, this week called the recent arrests “an example of the kind of harassment the city has apparently not only decided to tolerate, but to condone.”
“Hauling people into jail for not having anywhere else to sleep, or for violating some park regulation, is not a solution to providing help for the homeless. It only aggravates the problem,” he said.
Of those taken into custody, five were arrested at the shelter shortly after midnight March 1 after a fight inside spilled onto a patio, and several homeless people who were not among those housed at the shelter became involved, city officials said.
Burgess said three people were arrested for violating the park curfew, and two were arrested for drunkenness.
Last Thursday, sheriff’s deputies were called to the auditorium during a meeting of the Planning Commission after complaints that several homeless people who had assembled under an outdoor patio to escape the rain had become rowdy, a city employee said.
No one was arrested, and the group dispersed when deputies arrived, according to the employee, who did not wish to be identified.