Los Angeles Police Guided By Compassion In New Homeless Strategy
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Los Angeles has a new strategy for policing the homeless, one guided by compassion. To accomplish that, the city's been introducing a team of specially trained officers. As Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports, these cops act more like social workers.
ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: In LA's San Fernando Valley, LAPD officer Josh Fillinger makes his way through a wooded area next to a freeway. He stops to talk to a shirtless, barefoot young man who's sitting on a log.
JOSH FILLINGER: Are you on probation or parole, Sir - Good.
SCOTT: The man he's questioning is 24-year-old Gregory Dunning.
GREGORY DUNNING: I'm from a very small, sad, lonely city called Hemet.
SCOTT: Dunning is a heroin addict, and he admits he's out here in the woods to get high. And the way Fillinger speaks to him isn't what you'd expect from a cop in this situation.
FILLINGER: If you don't feel comfortable with police, that's fine. We have other people that you can talk to. But we really just want to get you in the right direction. We're not putting you in handcuffs.
SCOTT: A few months ago the LAPD made it official policy to treat the homeless with compassion and empathy. Officer Fillinger is part of a task force that's meant to put that policy into practice. It's called HOPE, which stands for Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement.
All day every day, these new HOPE officers talk to homeless people and try to get them help. Often they're accompanied by workers from the Regional Homeless Services Authority. LAPD Commander Todd Chamberlain says this is the first time the department has had a coordinated strategy around homelessness.
COMMANDER TODD CHAMBERLAIN: When you look at the City of Los Angeles' 21 different divisions, we had 21 different ways of doing things, and we wanted to come up with some centralized form that would give best practices to dealing with an incredibly complex problem.
SCOTT: Do you ever get frustrated. I mean do you ever think this really shouldn't be the police department's responsibility?
CHAMBERLAIN: Absolutely, yeah.
SCOTT: But with 25,000 homeless people within city limits, leaders are demanding all hands on deck.
ERIC GARCETTI: Homelessness shouldn't just be the responsibility of the obvious agencies.
SCOTT: That's L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Earlier this year he ordered every city department to come up with a plan to address homelessness, from airports to cultural affairs to the fire department. For the police, he asked them to think beyond enforcement.
GARCETTI: I think in the past we had this idea that the homeless were victims or perpetrating crime, and that was basically the identity and the interaction that police officers had with them.
CAROL SOBEL: You're, like, using a teaspoon to deal with a flood.
SCOTT: Carol Sobel is a civil rights lawyer who's sued the city numerous times for how it treats homeless people. She says the police can only do so much in a city that lacks shelters and affordable housing.
SOBEL: I think it's really good that they have a different approach, but it remains a resource question because I don't think the services are really there.
SCOTT: By the end of October, there will be 40 HOPE officers throughout the city. So far they're on track to place about 500 people a year in housing.
Back in the woods in the San Fernando Valley, heroin addict Gregory Dunning says he's been on the streets for a decade.
DUNNING: Off and on since I was about 14, 15. I was stealing my grandma's pills and selling them - the OxyContins. She had to kick me out, and I never really patched that up.
SCOTT: Officer Fillinger tells Dunning he can help connect him to a local rehab or a shelter.
FILLINGER: Are you interested in taking any of our services today (unintelligible)?
SCOTT: Dunning says no.
FILLINGER: And that's completely honest, and I appreciate that.
SCOTT: So Officer Fillinger hands Dunning some printouts about where to get food and shelter, then he walks away. For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles.
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