For decades, it’s been an enduring urban tale about downtown Los Angeles, often talked about but never proved: Police departments wanting to get rid of society’s lost and neglected -- the homeless, mentally ill and criminals -- simply drove through downtown and dumped them in skid row.
But on Tuesday, evidence landed in the lap of the person who most needed it: Capt. Andrew Smith, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division.
Smith said he was out on patrol with his partner about 10 a.m. Tuesday when he noticed a Los Angeles County sheriff’s car driving down 6th Street.
The cruiser, he said, turned south on San Pedro, then west on 7th Street to San Julian Street. There, Smith watched in disbelief as two deputies “pulled over, took a guy in handcuffs out of the car. They took off the cuffs and handed him a bag,” Smith said.
The captain and his partner immediately got out of their car and questioned the man and the deputies. Smith said the deputies told him that the man had been released from the Men’s Central Jail and was standing outside on the street when a supervisor ordered them to take the man to a downtown mission.
“But there was no mission nearby,” Smith said. “Only a line of guys sitting on milk crates.”
Deputies have identified the man as Byron Harris, 27.
Smith said the man had a long history of arrests in the Lakewood area as well as Long Beach, where he lived. He said Harris told him he had not asked to be dropped off and had no connection to downtown Los Angeles. Smith also said the man told him he suffered from bipolar disorder.
To the captain, the incident reaffirmed what he believes has been going on downtown for years. Other police agencies, Smith said, and even some hospitals, “are dumping homeless, drunks, narcotic addicts and the criminal population into the downtown area.... We’re fed up with it,” he said.
Smith is not alone. As word of the incident spread across downtown, residents and city officials expressed anger and demanded that the Sheriff’s Department investigate.
“I want an apology from Sheriff [Lee] Baca, to make sure this never happens again,” said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., which represents business interests in the downtown toy and industrial districts.
Baca and other Sheriff’s Department officials defended the deputies’ actions, saying that they were trying to help Harris find a place to live.
“What are we going to do, take him to -- Long Beach or Pasadena?” Baca said in an interview Thursday. Harris, Baca said, “was not in a fit state to fend for himself. And he was likely to fall prey to crime by another released inmate.”
Sheriff’s officials deny that the deputies were trying to keep Harris downtown or prevent him from going back to Long Beach.
But LAPD officials and downtown community leaders aren’t so sure. They have long been concerned about the possibility of dumping by other agencies -- so much so that for several months, officers patrolling downtown have been under orders to stop and question any out-of-town police car they see cruising the area.
Smith said they enacted the policy after his officers reported seeing police cars from far-flung communities in the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley and South Bay letting people off in downtown.
“Downtown Los Angeles is just not positioned to be the solution for every other city in L.A. County and the state parole system,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents most of downtown Los Angeles.
Dumping criminals, homeless and mentally ill people downtown has long been discussed as a problem, but even the most vocal critics have yet to prove a conspiracy by outside police departments.
Late last year, after Santa Clarita decided not to reopen a winter shelter it had operated and instead opted to pay a social service provider to bus the homeless to shelters in the San Fernando Valley and downtown, Perry sponsored a resolution condemning the practice of dumping “families and individuals to already overburdened services in parts of the county.”
Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Charlie Beck, who was Central Division captain until 2003, said actions by other police departments over the years have added to the existing problems in skid row.
“You keep pushing people into the neighborhood and sooner or later some will stick,” he said.
Estimates place downtown’s homeless population at 9,000 to 11,000. Most live in skid row, located in the older section of downtown around 5th Street.
But in recent years, the area has become an epicenter for a dramatic revitalization of Los Angeles’ central core. Many of the long-derelict banking buildings around skid row have been transformed into luxury lofts as a new residential community of upscale urbanites takes hold.
That transformation has caused some conflict as the new residents put down roots in the neighborhood of the homeless.
Some of the most critical reactions over the incident this week came from downtown residents and businesses.
“How dare they,” said Lopez, of the Central City East Assn. “How dare they take someone with a criminal record of the magnitude this person has, and put him on the streets? ... My organization is spending $1 million a year on safety. What disrespect.”
Baca said deputies were taking the man to a downtown mission because he had lingered outside the County Jail release area for 12 hours after being let out following an arrest on charges of indecent exposure.
Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said that it was standard practice for deputies to handcuff people believed to be mentally ill when transporting them in the back of a squad car.
“Instead of calling the LAPD, we decided to do the humanitarian thing and try to get him some help,” Whitmore said, adding that the deputies reported they dropped the man at the Midnight Mission’s food line.
Ricardo Garcia, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said deputies can provide transportation to anyone.
But they must have reasonable suspicion that someone has committed a crime before a person is handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car. Otherwise, it would constitute an unlawful detention.
Orlando Ward of the Midnight Mission, which is a block from where Smith encountered the deputies, said that Baca had long been reasonable on issues affecting the homeless and mentally ill.
But “dropping them off on the corner of 7th and San Julian -- there’s nothing humanitarian about that,” Ward said. “The much more compassionate response would have been to get them to the place they need help.”
On the streets around the mission, Ward said, “if he’s a user, he’s in user paradise. If he’s a dealer, he’s in dealer paradise. If he’s got mental disorders untreated, there’s a place where untreated folks hang out.”
But some service providers say it is understandable that agencies would bring people downtown -- even if it is questionable whether they have the right to do so.
“A lot of communities are not equipped to handle homeless men and women and children,” said Kim Ferraro, vice president of development and community affairs for the Weingart Center near 5th and San Pedro streets. “This is a community known for helping the homeless.”
Smith said that after he questioned the man and the deputies, he felt he had no reason to hold the man, who was “a bit confused.”
“He just walked away, into a crowd of folks at 7th and San Julian,” Smith said.
According to Whitmore, deputies later took the man into custody on a 72-hour psychiatric hold, which is set to expire Friday.