Skid Row Strategy Hits First at Drugs
Video surveillance also is planned. Lawmakers urge ban on 'dumping' homeless downtown.

By Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton
LA Times Staff Writers
November 23, 2005

City and state officials Tuesday promised a new attack on the persistent problems of Los Angeles' skid row, beginning with a crackdown on rampant drug dealing in the area, which police say generates roughly one-fifth of the city's drug arrests.

The Los Angeles Police Department plans to install video surveillance cameras on skid-row streets and increase the number of undercover detectives and uniformed patrol officers, officials said.

For the longer term, state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) said they plan to push new state laws to reduce the area's problems.

One would require law enforcement agencies to return inmates released from county jails to the communities where they were arrested.

The idea, Cedillo said, is to reduce the number of inmates who end up on skid row after being released from the Men's Central Jail.

"If they came from Calabasas, they should be released to Calabasas. If they come from Palmdale, they should be released to Palmdale," said Cedillo, whose district covers downtown and much of the area around it.

Three months ago, LAPD officials publicly accused other law enforcement agencies and medical facilities of dumping homeless people, mental patients and released criminals onto skid row.

In a report issued Tuesday, the Police Department cites dozens of cases of people being taken to the downtown neighborhood by 12 police agencies and at least three area hospitals. The report was compiled by reviewing the logs of facilities that provide care to the homeless on skid row.

Downtown community leaders and service providers praised the new effort.

Although the proposals would make only a dent in the problems, they mark the first time in years that political leaders have taken the area's ills seriously, they said.

"We've been waiting 20 years for this moment to happen," said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn. "We've got law enforcement, business owners and social service providers all sitting down on the same side of the table. We've got policymakers giving skid row the attention that it hasn't been given before."

Still, she was quick to add: "We want more than attention. We want results."

Officials who discussed the plan at a meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission acknowledged that more services are needed for the homeless. But they said the first step in alleviating skid row's problems needs to be crime reduction.

Addressing poverty and mental illness in the area "is almost impossible until we end this drug and alcohol swap meet," Cedillo said.

He and Nuñez plan legislation that would increase penalties for people arrested dealing drugs near treatment and recovery centers, much as the law currently treats drug crimes committed near schools. (Skid row has the largest concentration of such facilities in Southern California.)

Cedillo, who previously served on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he had rather reluctantly come to the conclusion that tougher penalties were needed.

"That is a long journey for someone like myself," he said. But, he added, no alternative will work for skid row, where drugs are dealt and consumed just outside the doors to treatment centers.

"For the addicts downtown, it's like going to an AA meeting when there are Jello shots being served outside," he said, referring to a mixture of Jello and alcohol.

Capt. Jodi Wakefield of the Police Department's Central Division said her officers are on track to make 6,500 arrests for drug-related crimes by the end of this year.

The police report found that the narcotics trade has turned skid row into a magnet for gangs wanting to unload drugs. It cited more than a dozen specific gangs that use the district as a distribution zone.

"Gang members are being drawn to skid row to sell dope. Most of their clientele are local people — homeless people — willing to spend every cent they have on dope," LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon said.

Wakefield said: "The whole problem we are having is holding these people accountable. We arrest them and they get out. They go five, six, seven times. We need to be tougher when it comes to our judicial system and the penalties these people are getting. They need to be held to it."

Wakefield is hoping to make a dent in the problem with a dozen undercover narcotics officers who will soon begin working on skid row with the goal of targeting major distributors.

In addition, commanders have sent nearly four dozen recruits from the Police Academy to patrol skid row and surrounding downtown neighborhoods such as the toy district and old bank district.

They will be aided by new cameras to be paid for by the Central City East Assn., an organization that represents business interests in part of downtown, and will be installed in skid row within two months. Such surveillance cameras have proved effective in Hollywood and MacArthur Park.

The report was prepared by Capt. Andrew Smith, who oversees policing of skid row and was the first to make public accusations about dumping after noticing two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies taking handcuffs off a homeless man just released from the Men's Central.

Deputy Police Chief Cayler "Lee" Carter Jr. said that since September officers had seen a hiatus in law enforcement agencies bringing people downtown against their will.

"I think that practice is on everyone's radar," Carter said. "No one wants to be embarrassed by that act."

Cedillo and Nuñez, however, say their legislation would provide a long-term solution to the dumping problem.

At present, Cedillo said, people are often released directly from the courts or jails into downtown — miles from their home neighborhoods.

Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said he could not comment until he sees the legislators' proposal.

Nuñez conceded that releasing inmates to their home communities will also require opening new treatment facilities. In the past, many communities have resisted halfway houses and agencies that help the homeless and drug addicts.

Resolving the problem "requires better planning and permitting," Nuñez said, "to identify areas with need and find locations within those areas of need to target services, so that the demand draws service providers there, not the other way around."

The new initiative should be the start of a more coordinated and aggressive effort to clean up skid row and provide more help to its residents, he added.

"Right now we have a piecemeal approach," Nuñez said. "It's not dealing with the problem."