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LAPD Arrests Skid Row Campers

Times Staff Writers

The LAPD on Tuesday escalated its crackdown on skid row’s homeless encampments, for the first time in months arresting transients for sleeping on the streets.

Police Chief William J. Bratton said he authorized the arrests after the L.A. city attorney’s office issued a legal opinion saying that officers could arrest homeless people who slept on skid row’s streets during the day.

But the new tactics were met with concern from some L.A. council members as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has aggressively challenged the city’s efforts to remove the homeless camps.

Catherine Lhamon, racial justice director of the ACLU of Southern California, questioned whether the arrests made Tuesday are allowed under an April federal appeals court ruling that struck down the city’s ban on people sleeping on streets and sidewalks.

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The court, siding with the ACLU, ruled it was cruel and usual punishment to arrest homeless people for sleeping when the city could not provide enough shelter beds for them.

“It would be unwise social policy to be making arrests pursuant to that ordinance,” Lhamon said.

The chief said he felt comfortable making arrests on the sleeping ordinance in part because there are more than 100 shelter beds available on skid row this week. The city attorney’s office gave the go-ahead, concluding that the appeals court ruling applied only to camping at night, not during the day.

But Councilman Dennis Zine questioned a policy of arresting homeless people only during the day but allowing them to remain at night.

“It sets a terrible precedent,” Zine said. “Are we going to say you can commit any type of crime if it’s at a certain hour? Elsewhere in the city, like the Valley, the law is enforced 24 hours. ... I think the ACLU is on shaky ground.”

The new tactics come after the City Council last month rejected a compromise with the ACLU, backed by Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, that would have allowed night camping but permitted police to arrest those who camped during the day.

Bratton announced that he and Villaraigosa have reached a new compromise with the ACLU that they hope the council will consider later this month.

The arrests mark a new push in the LAPD’s 10-day-old crackdown on crime and blight, which resulted in a surge of arrests and the first decline in the district’s homeless count in months.

With an infusion of 50 additional officers patrolling the area, officials have removed scores of homeless encampments and recorded 600 drug arrests in the the alleys of skid row, Bratton said Tuesday.

An LAPD homeless count of the area found the population had dropped from 1,801 two weeks ago to 1,447 on Sunday.

The drop is the first since March and comes after months of counts that found both the number of homeless people and the tent cities increasing.

“Compared to two weeks ago, it is clean.... It is getting better,” said Bratton, who recently has been visiting skid row daily. “This isn’t about arrests. This is about changing behavior. If you control behavior, you can change an area for the better.”

Bratton declined to provide details about the new settlement proposal, which was hammered out by city representatives and ACLU leaders in recent days.

Councilman Eric Garcetti said Tuesday the deal calls for the city to implement the terms, allowing night camping on skid row, outlawing it during the day and prohibiting homeless people from sleeping next to doors.

But under the compromise, all parties would ask the federal court to set aside the April decision, Garcetti said. By pulling back that ruling, it would not be published and could not set a precedent for other city homeless cases.

This is meant to address a central concern of the City Council, which feared the settlement would allow homeless people to camp out on streets at night beyond downtown.

The compromise would apply only to the skid row area. Council members also questioned the wisdom of settling the suit when some legal experts believe the city has a reasonable shot at prevailing before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The LAPD deployed the extra officers last Sunday, part of a long-promised effort to clean up an area plagued for decades by chronic homelessness and drug dealing.

They have fanned out across the area, demanding that homeless people remove their camps. But Tuesday marked the first day they made arrests for violating the sidewalk sleeping ordinance.

Six homeless people were detained for violating the ordinance. Three ended up being booked on narcotics charges or outstanding warrants, one was released and two were charged with sleeping on the street.

Capt. Andrew Smith said the people booked under the ordinance refused to respond to officers’ warnings to move. They were released to a homeless services agency.

The LAPD will use the sleeping ordinance only when it knows there are beds available -- some 141 on Tuesday, Smith added.

The added police presence came amid growing concern that skid row’s problems were getting worse. LAPD homeless counts found the homeless street population in skid row rose from 1,345 in March to 1,527 in July and 1,876 in September.

Some fear the crackdown is simply pushing some homeless people into adjoining neighborhoods, particularly the Newton Division just south of downtown, where some have noticed an increase in transients. Smith said the LAPD is aware of that potential and is planning to survey the area’s homeless population in the coming weeks.

Edward Jones, a plaintiff in the original ACLU lawsuit who still lives on skid row, said he was disappointed by the LAPD’s tactics. He said it ignores a larger reality about homelessness in L.A.

“I am out here because I can’t afford to live anywhere else,” he said.

When Bratton took office in 2002, he vowed to apply the same “broken windows” theory of law enforcement to skid row that he successfully used in New York’s Times Square when he was chief of that city’s Police Department in the early 1990s.

But the department slowed its efforts after the ACLU filed its lawsuit in 2003.

Some of the region’s top political leaders, including Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, have vowed in the last several months to make skid row a priority. The area has long had the largest concentration of homeless people in the western U.S. and is the site of about 20% of all drug arrests in the city.

The focus on skid row has also coincided with a boom in residential development downtown, with luxury lofts and condos rising on the fringes of the district.

The original ACLU settlement faced some of its greatest opposition from downtown developers and residents. They argued that signing off on a deal that allows homeless people to sleep on the streets at night would worsen skid row’s already severe problems.

Estela Lopez, executive director Central City East Assn., said she remains skeptical about any deal that allows night tent cities.

“Elected officials move on. Chiefs of police move on. Attorneys for the ACLU move on,” she said. “The only people who are going to live with the consequences of whatever is settled or whatever the appeal is are the people” in downtown.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.


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