DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When it comes to policing Skid Row, it seems as if my fellow officers and I are keeping our fingers in the cracks of a dam to prevent it from breaking. Though many people may not realize it, we are in the throes of a mental health state of emergency.
An extremely marginalized class of the Central City East community today is vulnerable to the criminal element that operates in Skid Row. That segment of the community is the mentally ill. Many of them are drawn to Skid Row for the free services that are not available in other parts of the city or county. Many of them are law-abiding citizens when they properly manage their illnesses. They utilize housing and other services and even become advocates in assisting others struggling with mental illness. Some are partners with our department via community policing.
However, while in Skid Row, these individuals’ issues often become exacerbated, as many are victimized and exploited by the criminals here. Others begin to self-medicate on the plethora of illicit narcotics being sold throughout the area.
Historically, as a police department, we have been relegated to assisting these individuals when they degenerate to such a state and meet the legal requirements for a mandatory hold, only to be released several days later to wander back to Skid Row. They usually end up being handcuffed again and returned to a hospital for more treatment. Even worse, the police often are relegated to being an after-the-fact entity, as the mentally ill often become chronic victims or suspects in violent crimes. Though many times this is understandable from a legal and public safety standpoint, it remains in my opinion one of the great wrongs in our society.
In my 16 years working in Skid Row, I have seen many individuals who, based on their volatile behavior, I believed were right on the edge of committing a crime. Unfortunately I had to wait until they actually committed the crime before I could “help” them.
Others were in such a deteriorated state that I knew they would become vulnerable to an often merciless and heartless criminal element. Most of them we are unable to assist as well, because they legally do not meet the requirements to be helped by our department.
Recently, a man who is known for trying to pick fights with random individuals when his mental illness overcomes him challenged a violent man to a fistfight in the area of Seventh and Wall streets. I along with other officers in Skid Row have detained and placed this individual on a medical hold on several occasions to prevent him from being harmed via his actions. On a day that we were not able to rescue him from his illness, he was stabbed multiple times in the heart and throat by the man he challenged. Thankfully he survived, but I saw this coming for months. Left untreated and un-housed, I truly believe he will be harmed again.
Months before that, I was involved in a use-of-force incident with the same man, as he tried to assault a woman in front of children at the Union Rescue Mission. This happened because, blocks away, he had been harassed by homophobic bullies over his sexual orientation. At no time during the struggle was I angry with this man. I was angry with a system that placed him, a homeless woman and me in danger. In my opinion, his actions were a cry for help.
Others who are not violent will become anchored to the sidewalk in unhealthy conditions for weeks and develop scabies, attract rats and other vermin, or become so filthy that they can be smelled from what seems like blocks away. However, because they at least have the wherewithal to feed themselves, they are often not considered candidates for assistance via our department mental health resources.
The police have been asked for years to be the answer to the issues stemming from mental illness in the communities we serve. We have done the best that we can. It is not the LAPD that has failed the mentally ill or the public. It is our society that has failed them. A society that has closed down hospitals. A system that is slow to create more housing-plus-care locations that would respect their autonomy and civil rights. A system that will not engage in proactive outreach.
I have had to arrest many mentally ill men and women who I knew and cared about after their illness drove them to harm someone. Though it was legal and in good faith, it was wrong. I put people in prison and jail who had needed help long before they committed their crimes. I could not stop them ahead of time because they did not say the magic words of “I want to kill myself” or “I want to hurt others.”
Recently we have seen an increase in the presence of said individuals in the Skid Row area. We are now at a state of urgency, as the streets of Skid Row have once again become an outdoor asylum without walls. On a daily basis we see the potential for violence against or committed by these individuals.
What we need most is the stepped-up assistance of professionals who deal with mental health to reach out to these individuals before they become victimized, threaten suicide, victimize others, or become so mentally unstable that they stop taking care of themselves. We have made several attempts to bring this to fruition, but our requests have been met with broken promises, or fear of how people would be perceived by the public for working with law enforcement.
We as a department are changing the way we do things for the safety of the community, and we are striving to develop stronger relationships with the people we serve. We need mental health agencies to do the same and join us. We have tried everything else. It is time to try something that may actually work if we give it a chance.
Deon Joseph is a Senior Lead Officer with the LAPD’s Central Division.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014