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Tough Love on Skid Row

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Tough Love on Skid Row

November 2, 2007
Urban PolicyOther

Drive around Los Angeles’s Skid Row with Police Commander Andrew Smith and you can barely go a block without someone’s congratulating him on his recent promotion. Such enthusiasm is certainly in order. Over the last year, this tall, high-spirited policeman and his officers have achieved what seemed impossible: a radical reduction of Skid Row’s anarchy.

People found sleeping on the streets are asked by Los Angeles Police Sgt. Tim Shaw to clear away from the entrance of a business in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles.

What is surprising about Mr. Smith’s popularity, however, is that his fans are street-wizened drug addicts, alcoholics and mentally ill vagrants. In that fact lies a resounding refutation of the untruths that the American Civil Liberties Union and the rest of the homelessness industry have used to keep Skid Row in chaos—until now.

Before Mr. Smith’s policing initiative began in September 2006, Skid Row’s 50 blocks had reached a level of squalor that stunned even long-time observers. Encampments composed of tents and cardboard boxes covered practically every inch of sidewalk. Their 1,500 or so occupants, stretched out in lawn chairs or sprawled on the pavement, injected heroin and smoked crack and marijuana in plain view. Feces and urine coated the ground. Crime was pervasive. The biggest heroin gang in downtown Los Angeles operated from the area’s west end, using illegal aliens to peddle dope supplied by the Mexican Mafia. Young Bloods and Crips from Watts’s housing projects battled over drug turf and amused themselves by robbing the elderly. Merchants brave enough to operate in the area had to barricade their property against nightly invasion and navigate through excrement and drug paraphernalia to open business in the mornings.

The disorder was the consequence of a destructive ideology that turned what had been a seedy downtown neighborhood for the down-and-out into an outright hell. In the 1960s, civil libertarians started eviscerating laws against public intoxication, vagrancy and loitering, which the police had used to maintain order. The deinstitutionalization movement stripped hospitals of their power to hold severely mentally ill patients for treatment. The result, by the 1980s, was a new Skid Row population: drug addicts, overwhelmingly black, often mentally ill, who camped out on the streets. The era of the “homeless” had begun. They brought in their train a criminal element, often violent, that hadn’t previously existed downtown.

Next came the homeless advocates. The more the government and philanthropy spent on helping the homeless—over $350 million on homeless housing downtown since the 1980s—the louder the advocates’ charges that nothing was being done.

The exertions of the advocates have long passed into the realm of the surreal. Last year, for example, Skid Row’s business improvement district, the Central City East Association (CCEA), concluded that street sweeping couldn’t keep up with the local filth and disease. To help business owners maintain the sidewalks in front of their properties, the association hired a power-cleaning truck to wash the pavement. The CCEA asked encampment residents to pack their possessions up during the operation, after which they would be free to return to the same spot on the sidewalk.

The advocates showed up en masse to protest. A member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker movement lay down under the truck to block its advance. Sidewalk cleaning was another tactic, the advocates said, in the “criminalization of homelessness,” a ubiquitous slogan used to discredit any effort to apply social norms and laws in areas colonized by vagrants.

When Police Chief William Bratton took control of the LAPD in late 2002, he vowed to bring safety to Skid Row through the application of Broken Windows policing, which is the enforcement of misdemeanor laws as a strategy for lowering crime. The ACLU of Southern California immediately filed two lawsuits to stop him, charging that the police were harassing the homeless, and that the enforcement of the city’s ordinance against sleeping or lying on the sidewalk violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. L.A.’s clueless judges agreed. Skid Row deteriorated even further.

Enter Andrew Smith. He had become captain in 2005 determined to “change the culture of chaos” on Skid Row. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that a political consensus finally emerged to police the area more aggressively, despite the ongoing litigation. With crucial backing from the city attorney, the local councilwoman, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Mr. Bratton assigned Mr. Smith an additional 50 officers and ordered him to start the Safer City Initiative (SCI).

Four mornings a week, Safer City squads blanket Skid Row’s most intractable blocks. Much of their effort targets quality-of-life issues -- discouraging public drinking and littering, stopping sales of counterfeit merchandise, nabbing illegal dumpers.

Because of the sidewalk ordinance lawsuit, the police still allow nighttime encampments, but ask people to pack up their belongings in the morning. Officers have made hardly any arrests under the ordinance, but the mere possibility of enforcement has had a major effect. In September 2006, there were 1,876 people sleeping on the street and 518 tents; in early October, there were 737 people and 245 tents. “We’ve broken the back of the problem,” says Mr. Bratton. The police no longer find dead bodies in the tents, rotting unnoticed for days or weeks. (The mayor, the City Council and Mr. Bratton himself, to their discredit, recently settled the sidewalk lawsuit favorably to the ACLU.)

Judged by crime statistics alone, Safer City’s results have been remarkable. Major felonies on Skid Row dropped 32% during the last year, compared to 4.2% in all of Los Angeles in 2007. Violent criminals claimed 241 fewer victims in the first half of 2007 than in the previous year. Drug overdose and natural deaths were down over 50% through June 2007; emergency medical incidents requiring EMS response were down 17%.

The most important changes have been in the code of the streets. The area’s most vulnerable populations—elderly tenants in SROs, addicts trying to go clean and the mentally ill—have been liberated to use the sidewalks and parks by Safer City’s assault on the violent drug trade. The homeless themselves approve. “The police have really improved things,” explains street habitant Kharo Brown. “The crack is getting really hard to find. These people do crazy things on crack”—including assaulting Mr. Brown.

Nevertheless, the advocates of disorder are preparing what they hope will be the deathblow of the Safer City Initiative. Several newly filed lawsuits make the usual specious accusations of rampant police abuse. UCLA law professor Gary Blasi alleges, in a much publicized report, that the enforcement of misdemeanor laws on Skid Row is discriminatory and ineffective; this charge will undoubtedly culminate in yet another lawsuit. Before L.A.’s judges adjudicate these claims, it would be useful if they spent some time in the area. Here is what they would see:

Whenever Commander Smith tours his district, vagrants shout out his name and come up to his squad car to shake his hand. His officers have a rapport with addicts and the mentally ill that the city’s elite anti-police litigators could never achieve. Only the police are on the streets every day, trying to nudge people who have fallen out of normal society back into it, encouraging them to get mental health treatment, and putting themselves (and their families) at risk of infectious disease in doing so. “The LAPD contacts me several times a day,” says a six-year resident of the Gladys Street sidewalk. “They ask me how I’m doing and if I am okay. They are my friends and they are good to me.”

The enforcement of laws relating to civil behavior—mostly through warnings, rather than arrests or citations—has been essential to undercutting the identity of Skid Row as a place beyond ordinary rules of human conduct. Says Officer Deon Joseph: “The idea that because people were homeless, they had a right to break ’minor’ laws . . . has led to nothing but death, disease and despair.”

The city’s policy makers should be under no illusions: If they dismantle the Safer City Initiative, the only people they’ll help are drug dealers and other street criminals. Skid Row is still no paradise; it remains in some ways a world apart. Yet its overall improvement is the greatest vindication to date of the power of policing to improve lives. It would be a tragedy if the advocates succeeded in reversing that success.