A cop’s view from skid row

ANDREW SMITH is a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department.

I AM THE CAPTAIN for the LAPD’s Central Division, which encompasses downtown and all of skid row. Like the police officers who patrol skid row, I was sorely disappointed by Ramona Ripston’s complete distortion — in a column on this page — of our efforts to stem the lawlessness, suffering and human misery that was commonplace on skid row just a few months ago.

I am outraged that Ripston, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, implied that our officers are violating the very Constitution they are sworn to uphold and protect. The officers in skid row, who all volunteer for the assignment, have one of the lowest rates for the use of force in the city. And I am even more appalled by her views because she walked skid row streets with our officers and rode around in a black-and-white last year and was shocked then at the horrific conditions under which our most vulnerable citizens survived. How quickly she forgot!

How quickly she forgot that convicted murderers, rapists, robbers, 3,800 parolees and 300-plus registered sex offenders called the 50 square blocks of skid row home. How quickly she forgot the dealers dangling narcotics in front of those trying to kick drugs. Many other predators were hiding among the street population, preying on the weak, addicted and mentally ill.

Fortunately, the terrible culture of lawlessness that was once the norm on skid row is quickly changing for the better.

Despite the efforts of the ACLU and other self-appointed champions of the homeless to thwart us, the Los Angeles Police Department is succeeding in protecting the vulnerable on skid row and in curbing the lawlessness: Fewer people are dying of drug overdoses; paramedic calls are down; crime has plummeted 36% so far this year, on top of an 18% reduction in 2006, and nobody who has wanted a bed and follows the rules has been left on the streets.

Moreover, missions report that more people are seeking beds and treatment, and our Streets or Services (SOS) program is diverting misdemeanor arrestees away from jail and into treatment and housing programs. The people living on the streets and the people living in the missions, hotels and apartments in the area report that they are feeling safer — because they are safer.

Ripston referred to several people on skid row who claimed that they were “harassed” for no reason. She decried the “jaywalking tickets” our officers write. We write traffic tickets to change behavior, not to harass the homeless. Consider that, in 2006, four out of six traffic deaths in the Central Division were caused by pedestrians in the roadway, as were all three traffic deaths so far this year.

Just a few months ago, skid row was where “anything goes” — an open-air drug bazaar with blatant outdoor acts of prostitution. Today, about 1,200 of those dealing (selling heroin or rock cocaine) are in jail. Hundreds of parole violators are back in prison.

Ripston asks: Where did all the homeless people go? I am sure some people have chosen to go to other communities where they can continue their criminal behavior. But many others who used to hang around skid row actually had a home; they just chose to stay on skid row because of the cheap and plentiful drugs, alcohol and prostitution.

Who would come to skid row just to hang out? How about Jason Johnson, a gang member who last year stabbed to death a homeless man in a dispute over a bicycle. Johnson had a home in Azusa but chose to hang out on skid row because he liked to smoke rock cocaine and because of the “party” atmosphere. He is now one of the people in prison, where he belongs.

Or Kristi, a woman from a prominent family who found herself addicted to drugs and living on the streets of skid row. Despite every effort by her family and outreach workers to get her back home or into an apartment, she chose to live on the sidewalk at 5th and San Julian streets, right next to an open shelter with empty beds. She was beaten to death last year on the sidewalk by a drug dealer.

What other kind of people are officers arresting on skid row?

How about Jimmy Lee Smith, who we caught in February hiding among the homeless. He was arrested on a parole violation. You may remember him as the “Onion Field” killer responsible for the murder of Officer Ian Campbell in the 1960s. Or how about Demond Little, an East Coast Crips gang member who was arrested by our Safer Cities Task Force, which is assigned specifically to skid row. Little, who was hiding out on skid row, was convicted of a home invasion, rape and murder.

Want to find out the truth about skid row? Want to see if our officers are trampling on the civil rights of homeless people? Come down and see for yourself. And don’t take my word for how the homeless are being treated; ask them yourself. Or ask one of the 400 courageous men and women working Central Division about the human suffering they see every day.

We are proud of skid row police officers. We will continue to provide training in dealing with the troubled and troublesome population on skid row. Do we need more money for housing, for supportive services and mental health care? Of course. Yet, until such resources are available, it is the job of the police to make the skid row area safe for the most vulnerable members of our community, giving them the opportunity to recover from their addictions in a supportive environment.

And much credit also goes to Police Chief William J. Bratton, who has pushed forward the Safer Cities initiative and taken on the problems of skid row despite constant criticism from the ACLU and others. His addition of narcotics officers and foot patrol officers is making the community safer.

When I “walk the walk” with my officers on skid row, I like to remind them of the quote from President Theodore Roosevelt, “It’s not the critic who counts.” The reality is that the LAPD Central Division officers are the ones who count, and they make a difference to the community on skid row every day.