LAPD Officer: If We Only Police Homelessness, We Miss the Root Problems

Society must help the homeless heal from mental illness and recover their lives, instead of sending the police in to deal with them, police veteran says.

(photo: Marc Bruneke via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

WASHINGTON — Officer Deon Joseph of the Los Angeles Police Department has worked in the city’s notorious Skid Row neighborhood for 17 years, where the concentration of homeless persons is one of the highest in the country. He has a short message from his work in law enforcement there.

“It’s wrong for us to be the solution,” the LAPD officer told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington at a Nov. 12 panel on homelessness.

Joseph believes there is a crisis of drug addiction and mental illness among the homeless population in Skid Row; he said that expecting the police to be the solution — to simply use force against these people when they have a drug-induced outburst — is not sustainable.

“If a trained mental-health clinician can’t talk them down, what do you think we [the police] are going to do?” he asked.

Joseph has been recognized nationally for his work in reducing crime in the Los Angeles neighborhood and continues his efforts to pull homeless persons out of the nightmarish cycle of gang violence and drugs that plagues the Los Angeles neighborhood.

“If you really sit down and talk to any police officer dealing with this type of situation,” he continued, “they will tell you that being mentally ill is not a crime.”

But if a homeless person with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia gets hold of methamphetamine or synthetic marijuana from a predatory drug dealer, “that is when they become a police problem, when they start attacking people who they think is a giant six-foot alligator.”

“We need to help these people,” he stated.

More than one in five homeless persons suffers a severe mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or severe depression, according to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Christy Respress, a former social worker in Washington, who joined Joseph on the AEI panel, estimated that about one-third of the D.C. homeless population she served suffered severe mental illness. Others had “untreated medical issues.”

Untreated mental illness can be a sufficient roadblock to the stability of any person on the streets, hindering their chances for employment, housing and their general ability to care for themselves. But in neighborhoods like Skid Row, the consequences can be much more devastating.


‘Perfect Victim’ in Need of Help

Criminals know that many of the homeless in the neighborhood are vulnerable, so gang members, drug dealers, pimps and loan sharks all descend on the area to prey on the population, Joseph explained.

Perpetrators of violent crime know the victims won’t be able to form a coherent narrative when they talk to the police.

“They make the perfect victims,” he said of the mentally ill homeless population.

Unfortunately, the problem has been allowed to fester within the neighborhood because of “NIMB-ism” or a “not in my backyard” syndrome, he said. Residents don’t want the homeless — and the hovering criminals preying upon them — wandering around their neighborhoods.

“I know the fear for many of these cities” to open up their neighborhoods to shelters and treatment centers, he admitted. Yet a lack of homeless programs in Los Angeles County has helped centralize the problems in Skid Row and created a “concentration camp without walls,” as Joseph put it.

A twin problem here, he added, is the “hands-off” mentality: that the homeless should be free to wander the streets as they wish — which, for a severely mentally ill person who has run out of medication, will lead to disaster.

“That is not their fault,” he stated of the ill; but it does prod law enforcement into taking action as “after-the-fact entities.” This “has to change,” he insisted.


Commonsense Solutions

There is perhaps a commonsense solution beyond simply putting drug addicts straight into housing, where dealers can easily find them and turn out everyone in the complex, he said.

“Go to the missions,” he insisted, and find patients who have been treated and remained clean for a few months. If they can be the first to occupy a housing project, that can go a long way towards stabilizing the area for future inhabitants.

Another solution could be extending the 72-hour rule, a California law that mandates that the police hold a mentally ill person in custody and transfer him or her to a psychiatric hospital for 72 hours if he or she is a danger to him or herself or others. That time needs to be much longer than three days to fix their diagnoses, Joseph insisted.

He suggested that hospitals focus on detoxing such patients first, then dealing with their mental illness, and finally connecting them with friends or family members who can take them in.