By DeWitt Lacy
Homelessness isn’t a crime. It’s a condition, like coronavirus, that afflicts people of every age and ethnicity. People don’t choose to live on the streets; they typically end up there due to circumstances beyond their control. Homeless men and women have no fewer rights than those of us with roofs over our heads, but they are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, especially at the hands of law enforcement.
LA’s homelessness crisis is likely to worsen as people displaced by the pandemic-driven economic downturn continue to lose jobs and housing. In January, the city of Los Angeles had an estimated 36,000 homeless residents.
That same month, the Los Angeles Police Department reported that in the last quarter of 2019, more than one out of every three homeless people who had contact with the police were subjected to the use of force, a 26% increase over 2018. Five of the 217 reported incidents where force was used involved a “categorical use of force,” including instances where force resulted in a serious injury.
Since the LAPD issued its last report, not much seems to have changed. In the final week of April, an LAPD officer was caught on video repeatedly punching a man during an arrest. The victim was reportedly an unarmed homeless man who may have been trespassing. The officer had allegedly been involved in three on-duty shootings during his more than 20-year career, including one that sparked violent protests 10 years ago. This wasn’t an isolated incident.
My client, Laureen, recently became homeless after splitting up with her significant other. Without resources or family support, Laureen was a novice at living on the streets. She was desperate for a place to sleep. After hearing of an abandoned building where many who are homeless sheltered at night, she staked out a quiet corner of the building to lay down. Others were drinking and doing drugs, but Laureen was trying to sleep.
Law enforcement showed up that night. Officers began questioning other occupants of the building. When they moved to the doorway, they spotted Laureen curled up in her corner and released their police dog. While she attempted to protect herself, the dog attacked her, sinking its teeth into her arm and mauling her, as she cried out for the officers to call their dog back. Instead, Laureen said, they ordered her to let the animal drag her to them.
Laureen’s injuries were horrific and uncalled for. All she wanted was a place to lay her head. She was causing no trouble and, aside from a possible trespass, was committing no crime. She now faces criminal charges simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is scarred and disfigured and will relive the nightmare of her attack for the rest of her life.
What is happening in our police departments? Violence against homeless people isn’t taught in police academies. It isn’t part of any state or federal policy. No legislature or government agency endorses it. But it happens with regularity. Unless the system fundamentally changes, homeless people will continue to be targeted and abused by the people whose job is to protect a society of which homeless people are an inconvenient part.
There is a difference between policy and practice. Officers learn policy in classrooms and behind computers. They learn practice in the field and on the street. That so many homeless individuals are victimized by police speaks to a troubling level of acceptance and complicity. The situation is further complicated by the fact that homeless victims have no resources or voice, police investigative bodies cannot help but be tilted in favor of law enforcement, and police unions can be powerful forces against reform.
Recommendations for change are only successful when they are adopted and implemented. A good model to follow may be San Francisco’s, in which an office separate from the police commission investigates officer-involved shootings. What will work for LA may be different, but it’s important to begin the analysis now.
A first step toward changing practices that terrorize and injure homeless people is to increase the influence of homeless advocates on police commissions. When homeless people have a real voice in how they are treated, those in power are obligated to listen.
There should also be financial costs for those who behave badly. If officers are suspended without pay or actually lose their jobs for acting like rogues, their colleagues may be more likely to embrace a different policing model.
Homeless people live difficult lives. How can we justify, in the name of law and order, making those lives worse?
DeWitt Lacy is a Los Angeles civil rights attorney at the John Burris Law Firm, and has practiced civil rights law for over a decade, with a focus on Section 1983 Civil Rights Litigation, employment discrimination, and personal injury. Lacy has successfully prosecuted wrongful death actions and civil rights violations against San Francisco, Vallejo, Santa Clara, and Hayward.
Image: Los Angeles Police Department video of Officer Frank Hernandez punching a homeless man on April 27, 2020, in Boyle Heights.