Safer Cities Initiative: 2nd Year Anniversary
The Safer Cities Initiative is a Failed Policy
End Human Rights Violations and Build Housing Today!
Prepared by Lamp Community and the Los Angeles Community Action Network, September 2008
In September 2006, the Los Angeles Police Department, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo launched the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) in the Skid Row community. Although SCI was promoted as a means to improve public safety and bring additional homeless services to the community, police enforcement has been the most significant and consistent element of the initiative. At the SCI launch, 50 additional uniformed officers were deployed to a 50-square block area (0.85 square miles) — the equivalent of adding 470 new officers to the Rampart Division or 700 officers to the 77thStreet Division in South Los Angeles. In addition, dozens of undercover narcotics officers were deployed to the same area, resulting in an unprecedented concentration of police resources in a neighborhood with relatively low rates of serious and violent crime.
Skid Row is home to between 13,000 and 15,000 residents; about 75% of them are African American, 95% are extremely low-income, and about one-third are currently homeless. For decades, Skid Row has seen the most extreme and concentrated poverty in Los Angeles, as well as steadily declining public and private investment needed to improve the community and provide economic opportunity to residents. However, as the City’s promotion of a “new downtown” began to take hold early in this decade and higher income residents began to live in and around Skid Row, homelessness in the community suddenly began to receive media and political attention. Yet, instead of instituting policies and programs to end homelessness — most importantly increasing the affordable and supportive housing stock — almost 1,000 low-income housing units were lost in downtown Los Angeles between 2000 and 2003, and a law enforcement strategy to attack the symptoms of extreme poverty was developed and implemented. This combination has resulted in an expensive and ineffective response to homelessness and poverty, as well as massive human rights violations against poor and mostly Black people.
Two Years of Devastation
This punitive approach of the City’s Safer Cities Initiative has damaged our community and residents for the long-term, forced poor people of color out of downtown, and is a human rights tragedy. For example:
v In the first year of SCI, LAPD issued about 12,000 citations, primarily for pedestrian violations. This is 48 to 69 times the rate of citations issued City-wide. Citations given to homeless and other low-income people carry fines they cannot pay, and inevitably lead to arrest.
v About 750 arrests have been made PER MONTH, or about 18,000 arrests in two years.
v The human rights of poor people, African Americans, women, and people with disabilities have been trampled upon, including numerous incidences of police abuse and brutality.
v State-level sentence enhancements and the District Attorney’s “5th Street Corridor” policies have created a separate and unequal criminal “justice” system for the Skid Row community. Punishment is not determined by the type and severity of the crime, but rather solely by the neighborhood in which the arrest took place.
v The majority of arrests are drug related and there have been obvious efforts by LAPD and the District Attorney to escalate possession charges to “possession with intent to sell,” and to initiate undercover stings for sales of extremely small quantities of drugs. The intentional practice of escalating these charges results in incarceration of those struggling with the disease of addiction instead of the treatment required by Proposition 36 and supported by 61% of California voters.
The City spends $6 million annually for the 50 additional police officers on Skid Row – about the same as it spends on homeless services for the entire City each year. However, the actual cost of SCI far exceeds the cost of additional officers, including voluminous court and incarceration costs. Because the District Attorney’s office has refused to accept plea bargains on drug cases from Skid Row (a policy that raises serious constitutional questions), public defenders are left with no option but to take these cases trial in an already overburdened court system. The $6 million per year spent on additional police personnel could instead provide housing subsidies and services for 350 homeless people.
The two-year, $12 million-dollar-plus effort to increase enforcement in a 50-square block area has had little or no effect on drug-related or violent crime. The only documented crime reduction during the two years of SCI was in the number of robberies. Thus, the City has spent $68,000 for each robbery it prevented in Skid Row, an area that already had fewer robberies than many other parts of the City before the initiative began!
While Mayor Villaraigosa and Chief Bratton were busy touting this incredibly expensive “reduction in crime,” other important criminal justice needs were unmet, such as DNA testing of evidence from violent crime scenes. The LAPD unit responsible for DNA testing is so understaffed that last month a careless mistake cost the city $500,000 in federal funds that would have helped clear some of the backlog.
Apparently, LAPD doesn’t consider DNA testing a priority, despite the fact that it could exonerate innocent people and incarcerate the perpetrators of violent crimes; instead, pleasing downtown developers by arresting thousands of homeless people in a gentrifying downtown is more important.
Because of the SCI strategy to escalate charges, people will be ineligible for federally-funded housing and food stamps for many years, or in some cases for life, and most will be forced to live on the streets upon their release. The federal government has chastised Los Angeles for its punitive approach, and has repeatedly asked the City to invest its resources in housing and services instead. The City’s minimal investment in housing and services led to a $15 million loss in federal funding for homeless programs in 2007, while every other large city in the country got additional money.
It is unacceptable that the City of Los Angeles has implemented its failed SCI policy for two years already – and it cannot continue. Many downtown residents and organizations have opposed SCI since its inception, as it is clearly the most devastating means of removing poor people from the “new downtown.” Before SCI enters its third year, we demand:
v The end of SCIenforcement strategies and the end to all additional uniformed and undercover LAPD deployment in Skid Row.
v The end of discriminatory charging and sentencing policies.
v Investment in real solutions. Build housing, not jails.
v The protection of human rightsfor all residents of Los Angeles.