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Garcetti keeps a low profile as Echo Park homeless battle rages

LAPD officers at Echo Park Lake on Wednesday night as officials gave closure notices at homeless camp.
LAPD officers at Echo Park Lake on Wednesday night as officials gave closure notices at the homeless camp.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles political leaders were quick to speak out after police descended on Echo Park Lake on Wednesday to help shut down a park that has been home to many homeless people: Some council members criticized activists for challenging police officers, while others questioned the police response.

One noticeably absent voice was that of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has largely stayed in the background amid the debate over the future of the park and its homeless occupants. Instead, Garcetti appears to have deferred to the local councilman, Mitch O’Farrell.

Garcetti wasn’t available for an interview Thursday, spokesman Alex Comisar said. He took part in an online panel about community-based public safety and participated in a Metropolitan Transportation Authority meeting.

Comisar said Garcetti and the mayor’s office staff have been “instrumentally involved” in the process of shutting the park and getting 177 people into housing.

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While Garcetti didn’t make himself available to reporters, in comments to The Times editorial board he defended the decision not to reveal the exact time of the closure, arguing that the number of protesters could have been much larger than it was if the date and time had been broadcast.

Other city leaders quickly weighed in. Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor, called in to a television news show Wednesday night, telling a newscaster that homeless people at the park were being offered shelter.

Isaac Scher says his arm was broken when an LAPD officer swung a baton at him on an Echo Park skirmish line Wednesday night.

In an interview Thursday, the councilman criticized activists who used social media Wednesday to urge people to “fight back” against police and oppose plans to close the park.

Activists are obstructing city efforts to get people housed, the councilman said. “I’m questioning the activists’ motives. Do they want to help people or not?” Buscaino said.

Councilwoman Nithya Raman warned on Twitter Wednesday that a “mass eviction” of the homeless camp would hurt the effort to work together to house people.

Raman spokesman Jesse Zwick says the councilwoman was at Echo Park Lake on Wednesday night doing outreach to homeless people.

In some corners, the LAPD response to Echo Park has drawn comparisons to Occupy L.A. and the city’s eviction of tents from City Hall’s lawn in 2011.

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Back then, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and police Chief Charlie Beck held a news conference together to announce that the park would be closing in three days. Villaraigosa was also highly visible on the night of the police shutdown, walking through the park as police finished operations.

Later, the move was criticized and the city was forced to settle a lawsuit after activists complained that the LAPD used a “shock and awe” campaign to forcibly remove hundreds of protesters.

After Wednesday’s night operation, Councilman Mike Bonin criticized the police response and called for an accounting of the cost.

The councilman, who represents Venice and several other Westside neighborhoods, said he wants to know how the deployment affected policing in other areas of the city, adding that the response runs counter to “reimagining public safety.”

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“At a time while some neighborhoods in L.A. are clamoring for more patrols and faster 911 response times, deploying more than 100 officers to respond to homelessness at a single park inevitably drains resources from other areas,” Bonin said in a statement.

The cost of running the LAPD, which includes paying overtime to officers, has become a focal point in debates over policing and the city budget over the last year. Some groups are calling for the city to shift money to social services.

Police officers surrounded Echo Park Lake on Wednesday night as city departments worked to begin closing the park for repairs.

Homeless people have bedded down for months at the grassy recreational spot, but there is growing concern about the safety and well-being of those in tents. Social workers are offering housing options, but activists contend the park provides a refuge and community that homeless people can’t get elsewhere.

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O’Farrell, who represents Echo Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, said Thursday that people at the park have been offered shelter at a nearby winter shelter and other housing options. He also said that the park had seen drug overdoses, sexual and physical assaults, animal abuse, and more.

On Wednesday afternoon, hours before the LAPD action, Garcetti was asked at an unrelated event if police officers would help clear out unhoused people if they refused to go.

“Not that I know of,” Garcetti said, adding that police would be called only if there was a public safety issue.

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The mayor was also asked about accusations that the city has been secretive about its plans to close the recreational space.

“I don’t know about that,” Garcetti said. He said the park had been “hard hit” and that the city frequently closes parks.

“I do hope that all the departments will share very transparently the work that’s being done,” the mayor added.

Bill Przylucki, executive director of the community group Ground Game, opposes shutting down the park and said Wednesday’s LAPD operation wasn’t effectively communicated by the city. “There was a vague sense that something was coming at some point,” Przylucki said.

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“The LAPD presence shouldn’t be the tip of the spear” when it comes to getting people into housing, Przylucki added.

Others called in to a city committee hearing Thursday to support the city’s actions.

“I was there last night at the lake,” said Riley Montgomery, who lives in the district. “The police were very respectful, and it wasn’t as dramatic as people are portraying.”


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