RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here is Los Angeles, skid row isn't really a row - it's a square mile near downtown where the streets and missions are home to as many as 10,000 people with no other homes. The L.A. Police Department's Central Division is located right in the middle of skid row. The changes they've made to better police this special population, have made Central unique in the LAPD. But critics say homelessness should not be treated as a police problem.
NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.
INA JAFFE: It's good for cops to know their beat. In the case of Andrew Smith, captain of Central Division, his beat also knows him.
Ms. SHIRLEY BURNETTE: I didn't see you this morning.
Captain ANDREW SMITH (LAPD Central Division): You know what? I came in from the other way. I came down San Pedro instead of driving around.
Ms. BURNETTE: You've gotta come this way and let me know you're protecting the services.
Capt. SMITH: Okay, I'll come in to see...
JAFFE: Smith banters with Shirley Burnette(ph) and her companion Robert Robinson(ph) who are reclining on the sidewalk, propped against a wall.
SMITH: And how early do I get here?
Mr. ROBERT ROBINSON: About five, six...
Ms. BURNETTE: Five forty-five.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROBINSON: We know it.
Ms. BURNETTE: Right when the coffee comes out of here.
Capt. SMITH: I'm glad I'm not an undercover guy, because you guys...
Mr. ROBINSON and Ms. BURNETTE: (unintelligible)
JAFFE: No way Smith could go undercover here. He's tall, fit, with a shaved head, and white - in an area where most of the residents are African American. Burnette and Robinson see the captain on his way to work because they sleep out on the sidewalk. Have been for four years, says Burnette. And you can see throngs of people just like them on almost every block. Many sit next to a heap of their belongings - tents, shopping carts, wheelchairs, and huge piles of who knows what under bright blue tarps. Mental illness is rampant; so is drug addiction. And, says Smith, there's a waiting list of officers who want to work here.
Capt. SMITH: All the guys that are here are volunteers. They want to work here. And they want to work in these conditions because they really feel like they can make a difference.
JAFFE: All of them get special training to deal with the troubled people they'll encounter here. Central Division makes more arrests than any other LAPD division, yet has the lowest use of force. More than half of their arrests are for drugs. As we walk along 6th Street, Smith points to the sidewalk and evidence of drug use right where we stand. Strangely, it looks festive - tiny, artificial flowers and little red balloons.
Capt. SMITH: What people will do, will buy their heroine in a little balloon like that. A mouth dealer will keep it in his mouth and then deal the heroine out of these little balloons like that. That little flower that you see there is from a cocaine pipe. They'll sell these little flowers, made in China, in a little glass tube. Homeless guy or drug addict pulls the flower out and then has a cocaine pipe.
JAFFE: We walk one more block and turn onto Gladys.
Capt. SMITH: It looks like we've got a little arrest situation going on up here.
JAFFE: A tall man in red and a woman in black leather are standing handcuffed near squad cars. There is another suspect cuffed down at the end of the block.
Capt. SMITH: The dealer is the young lady in the black, and she's going to be going to jail for sales. He's going to go for possession and the other guy is going to go for possession.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
Capt. SMITH: We'll get it all sorted out back at the station, partner.
Unidentified Man: No, but that's not right. How are you going to write me up for possession, dude? I haven't (unintelligible) anything. Nothing. No dope...
Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)
(Soundbite of sirens)
JAFFE: Smith checks in with one of the arresting officers, Lisa Arseith(ph).
Capt. SMITH: About how many rocks do you think are in that bag?
Officer LISA ARSEITH (LAPD Central Division): Looks like he has about 30 rocks, plus there was some additional that my other partner picked up - maybe about four, five other rocks on the ground.
JAFFE: Her partner is Officer Curtis Johnson(ph) who is also holding a wad of cash.
Capt. SMITH: And what about the money? Where did that come from?
Officer CURTIS JOHNSON (LAPD Central Division): Money that she was getting from the buyer. So it was all, it was next to her, where she was stashing it. And then this was on the ground where she was sitting.
JAFFE: The Skid Row drug market is so lucrative that dozens of rival gangs come here from all over L.A. and sell their stuff without conflict. It's not the drug arrests, though, that have riled civil libertarians, it's the busts for sleeping on the street. L.A. has a law that makes it a crime to block the sidewalk.
Mr. MARK ROSENBAUM (Legal Director, ACLU of Southern California): The city of Los Angeles has the most Draconian law in the United States when it comes to criminalizing poverty.
JAFFE: Mark Rosenbaum is the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. He sued the city to overturn the law that makes blocking the sidewalk illegal.
Mr. ROSENBAUM: This city has taken the cold and defenseless position that homelessness is a crime, and turned over the matter to law enforcement. That's short-sighted, it's immoral, and it's also illegal, and that's why we're in court.
JAFFE: The ACLU won the suit. An appeals court judge ruled that you can't arrest people for sleeping on the sidewalk if there aren't enough shelter beds for them. But the city is contesting that ruling, and sleepers are still being arrested, though mainly during the day.
City Councilmember Jan Perry's district includes Skid Row. She thinks the city needs to do whatever it takes to keep people from lying in the street with no help.
Ms. JAN PERRY (Los Angeles City Council Member): The preponderance of the individuals who are on the sidewalk are African American men. And I think it is a form of genocide to leave people on the street without any safety net, without any protection, and not fight vigorously to make sure that people get pulled in for services, and off of the street.
JAFFE: And at Central Division, getting arrested can be one route to those services.
(Soundbite of many people speaking at once)
Unidentified Man: I didn't do anything.
JAFFE: This is the booking room. It's about 11 o'clock in the morning. The man you can hear so clearly is handcuffed to a bench, waiting for something. A much more soft-spoken man named Glen Clay(ph) sits at a table in the back of the room, answering questions from social worker, William DuGuar(ph).
Mr. WILLIAM DUGUAR (Social Worker): What branch of the service you in?
Mr. GLEN CLAY: United States Marine Corps.
Mr. DUGUAR: All right.
Mr. CLAY: Sniper.
JAFFE: DuGuar works for the St. Vincent Society, but he's stationed at Central Division. Five days a week, 20 hours a day, social workers like DuGuar try to send people picked up for minor stuff to a shelter or to rehab instead of to jail. This program started at Central three years ago. There is now a mental health unit, too. So far, only one other LAPD station has a social worker, and so far, just part-time.
Mr. DUGUAR: Okay, what's your drug of choice?
Mr. CLAY: My drug of choice is marijuana.
Mr. DUGUAR: How often do you use marijuana?
Mr. CLAY: Probably like every hour on the hour.
JAFFE: Glen Clay is a shy man with a sweet smile. He was picked up this morning for sleeping on the sidewalk. Count him with those who think it's wrong to arrest someone for that.
Mr. CLAY: They don't understand, sometimes you can't sleep at night. Too much things go on when you live on the street. So you have a tendency to walk around all night, you know what I mean, because of all the crack heads and the noise. There's another whole life at night.
JAFFE: Instead of going to jail, Clay has agreed to go to PATH. That stands for People Assisting the Homeless. He'll get room and board, drug treatment and job assistance. If he completes the program, his record will be cleared.
Mr. CLAY: I'll do good. It's kind of heaven-sent.
JAFFE: And at least now he won't have to walk around all night anymore, or risk closing his eyes after dark, like the thousands of others on Skid Row with no place to go.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.