The LAPD says it has opened its first criminal investigation into the dumping of homeless people on skid row after documenting five cases in which ambulances dropped off patients there Sunday. Police said the patients, who had been discharged from a Los Angeles hospital, told them they did not want to be taken downtown.
Los Angeles Police Department officials, who photographed and videotaped the five alleged dumping cases, called it a major break in their yearlong effort to reduce the number of people left on skid row by hospitals, police departments and other institutions.
Though police have documented other cases of hospitals dropping off recently discharged patients in the district, "this is the most blatant effort yet by a hospital to dump their patients on skid row against their will," LAPD Capt. Andrew Smith said.
Officials at Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center strongly denied that they had improperly handled the patients.
Dumping has emerged as a major political issue in Los Angeles, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other critics saying that the practice exacerbates the ills of a district that already has the largest concentration of homeless people in the West.
Police said they were investigating whether the patients were falsely imprisoned during their transfer and also whether the hospital violated any laws regarding the treatment of patients.
The state Legislature recently passed a law aimed at cutting down on dumping across city boundaries, but it won't take effect until January.
Sunday's investigation began about noon, when an LAPD sergeant saw a patient being left in front of the Volunteers of America homeless services center on San Julian Street. He immediately called an LAPD videographer, who over the next few hours recorded four more ambulances arriving at the facility and leaving patients who had been discharged from Los Angeles Metropolitan. The hospital is on Western Avenue near the 10 Freeway.
Police also recorded interviews with the patients as well as with James Frailey, a 30-year-old attendant with ProCare, a private ambulance company.
Frailey told police that the hospital had hired his company "on a regular basis" to move discharged patients from the medical center to skid row and that other private ambulance companies also take patients to the area. He said the hospital appeared to have made "no prior arrangements" for the patient he transported Sunday, according to police records.
One patient the LAPD interviewed on videotape, 62-year-old Marcus Joe Licon, told officers that he "never wanted to go" to skid row and asked that he be dropped off at his son's house. According to LAPD records, Licon said he was at the hospital because of problems with his knee and was released after they gave him "some painkillers and some medication."
John V. Fenton, president and chief executive of Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center, denied that his hospital had dumped patients.
Rather, he said, three of the five patients had arrived at the hospital from Volunteers of America or the nearby Lamp Community center. They gave San Julian Street addresses on their admission information, he said.
The other two, he said, had "requested to go to either another skid row facility center or Volunteers of America."
Calling ahead, Fenton said, would not have made a difference because such facilities don't take reservations.
"Why would we go there? With all of the issues, why would we send someone there who did not ask to go there? It is illogical," he said. "We don't just send people back to the streets. It's not what we are about."
But officials at Lamp and Volunteers of America said Monday that they had no record of any of the five patients having been at their facilities either before or after they were dropped off on skid row Sunday. Moreover, the LAPD said, all five patients had stated in their interviews that they did not want to be left on skid row.
When told of the hospital's explanation, Volunteers of America's Los Angeles group director of homeless services, Jim Howat, said he was baffled.
"Somebody's wires got crossed. It doesn't really make sense to me," he said. "I don't know of anybody [at the center] that has worked with Metropolitan hospital.... We don't have case managers on duty [on Sundays]. It is not a time when we are well-equipped to accept anybody."
Though this is the LAPD's first criminal investigation of dumping, the Los Angeles city attorney's office said it was reviewing other dumping cases against some Los Angeles hospitals to determine whether civil or criminal charges could be filed.
The office also is considering asking a judge for a consent decree involving local hospitals that would establish sanctions for dumping patients.
There is no law against sending patients to skid row after they have been discharged. But the city attorney is looking at whether hospitals that engage in dumping could be penalized for violating the federal Emergency Medical Transfer and Active Labor Act, which requires medical facilities to screen and stabilize all patients and penalizes them for releasing or transferring patients who are medically unstable.
The city attorney also is examining whether hospitals that dump homeless patients can be cited for violating a state law that deals with unfair business practices. The law allows a corporation to be sued for unscrupulous behavior and has been used in the past to prosecute slumlords.
Jeff Isaacs, chief of the criminal division of the city attorney's office, said hospitals also could face more serious criminal charges if they were found to have forced people to go to skid row. "If these people are being taken against their will, we are talking about false imprisonment and in some cases elder abuse," Isaacs said.
Shannon Jones, director of patient care at Metropolitan, said that all the patients sent to Volunteers of America on Sunday chose to go there and "were discharged in perfect health."
"We certainly were not dumping patients, nor were these patients being mistreated or placed out into the street," she said. "They didn't have any family that they had mentioned or that was involved in these particular cases."
The LAPD told a different story.
Smith said officers took Licon to his family's home, where his niece told them that she was not notified of his release and didn't understand why he had been taken to Volunteers of America.
Another patient, Johny Williams, 60, told police that he wanted to be taken to a Pasadena convalescent home.
The ambulance driver said he would instead take Williams to skid row, the Pasadena man told police in a videotaped interview. "This is where they dumped me off at." Williams eventually was taken to Pasadena by a downtown pastor.