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A SKID ROW COP’S OPINION: A MENTAL HEALTH STATE OF EMERGENCY

Hello again all. It has been a while since I have posted on the blog. This is primarily due to my fellow officers keeping our fingers in the cracks of the Skid Row dam to keep it from breaking. Those cracks include an injunction that hampers the City’s efforts in obtaining and maintaining a decent quality of life for the Skid Row citizens we serve, as well as AB109, which severely impedes our ability to deter outside narcotics dealers from selling drugs near drug programs under the protections of the Lavan injunction. It is state law now, and there is nothing we can do to change it. With any change to our laws, we as a law enforcement entity must adapt and continue to find ways, no matter how difficult to reduce crime and fear of crime in any community we serve. Skid Row is no exception.

The Lavan decision and a slow recovering economy have injured the enhancement and outreach efforts arms of the Safer Cities initiative. Though we are still engaged in various forms of enforcement to keep crime down, without the aforementioned components, it is difficult to build on the success of past efforts. With talk of nearly, $3.7 million dollars being allocated to Skid Row, I believe the enhancement arm will be slowly restored over time. As far as outreach, aside from individual efforts of dedicated officers in the area, we have yet to see any movement or talks to bring that arm of the initiative back on line. We have been working diligently to start the conversation.

Without additional resources an extremely marginalized class of the Central City East community, remains vulnerable to the criminal element of the Skid Row community. That segment of the community is the mentally ill. Many of them are drawn to Skid Row for the level of free services that are not availed to them in other parts of the City or county. Many of them are not criminals, and function as any other law-abiding citizen when they properly manage their illnesses. They obey laws, 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, and assets to the Skid Row community. Yet others are unfortunately dumped in the Skid Row area from other parts of the state and country at varied and dangerous stages of mental illness.

While in Skid Row their various issues become exacerbated, as many become victimized and exploited by the criminal element of Skid Row. Others become dual diagnosed as they begin to self medicate on the plethora of illicit narcotics being sold throughout the area by the very criminals we are struggling to keep out.

Historically as a department, we have been relegated to assisting these individuals when they degenerate to such a state, when they meet the legal requirements for a mandatory hold, only to be released several days later only to wonder back to Skid Row. They usually end up being handcuffed again and returned to a contract hospital for treatment again. Even worse, we often are relegated being an after the fact entity, as the mentally ill often become chronic victims or suspects in violent crimes, where they end up seriously hurt, or locked away in a jail or prison cell for a violent crime. 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.

As an officer working over 16 years in the Skid Row area, I have seen many individuals, who I believed were right on the edge of either committing a crime, based on their volatile behavior. Unfortunately I had to wait until they actually committed the crime before I could “help” them. Others, I would observe in such a deteriorated state, that I knew that they would become vulnerable to an often merciless and heartless criminal element, due to their inability to report or articulate crimes against them. Without video, or a willing witness of these crimes, their cases would routinely get rejected, and they would remain open to more violence. 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 mentally ill man, who is known for trying to pick fights with random individuals when his mental illness overcomes him, challenged a violent man to a fist fight in the area of 7th Street and Wall Street. 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. He died several times in the hospital as doctors worked diligently to preserve his life. Thankfully he survived, but I saw this coming for months, and left untreated and un-housed, I truly believe he will be harmed again.

Just months prior, I was involved in a use of force with the same man, as he tried to assault a woman in front of children at the Union Rescue Mission, because blocks away, he was harassed and bullied 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 than nearly turned criminal.

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 blocks away. They end up in such a poor mental state that they do not take care of themselves physically, but because they at least have the wherewithal to feed themselves, they are often not considered a candidate for assistance via our department mental health resources.

We have been asked for years to be the answer for the issues stemming from mental illness in the communities we serve. We have done the best that we can to manage this issue with limitations to protect the mentally ill from predators, as well as protect the public from mentally ill individuals who we know are prone to violence. 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, as well as provide them with on-site access to services that can manage their conditions.

As a Division, it is no longer our goal to remain an “after the fact entity” as it relates to the homeless. I as a patrol officer, and a Senior Lead Officer, 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 in my mind a moral crime. I put people in prison, and jail who needed help long before they committed their crimes. I could not stop them ahead of time because they did not utter the magic words of “I want to kill myself” or “I want to hurt others.” I watched helplessly as the indicators of their crime presented themselves in their behavior moments before an assault, a stabbing, or an act of mayhem. Or even worse, for the innocent victims, who would sit on the sidewalk mumbling incoherently, or cursing at an imaginary nemesis. I had an uneasy feeling that as soon as I walked away they would become victimized by a Skid Row predator anxious to prove how tough they were. Some were sexually violated because the assailant perceived that the victim could not call for help, or be able to articulate what happened to them. Upon my return from a meeting or handling a call for service my fears would often be confirmed.

Since the Lavan Injunction, the early release of many mentally ill individuals from the prison system, and a more aggressive form of nimbyism in other community’s eager to rid themselves of their mentally ill, we have seen an increase in the presence of said individuals in the Skid Row area like never before. We are 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, and we truly need the stepped up assistance of mental health 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. As we enter into this new phase of the Safer Cities Initiative, we desire that outreach stand at the front end our efforts. That can only happen when mental health providers, within and outside of Skid Row partner with us to try to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in Skid Row before they become a police report, or criminalized by their illness.

We have made several attempts to bring this to fruition, but our requests have been met with trepidation in working side by side with us out of fear of how they would be perceived by the public for working with law enforcement. This mentality has to change. It is not our desire to violate the constitutional rights of the mentally ill members of the Skid Row community. We desire to meet the mentally ill where they are with resources and counseling before they get to a point where they lose their freedom via a criminal act or a mandatory hold. This will take a collective and unified effort, because if we are honest, everything else we have tried has failed them.

No one knows better than the officers who work Skid Row where the neediest individuals of proactive outreach can be found. We see them daily. We know who the most vulnerable are, and we simply want to reach out to them via a consistent and proactive partnership to get them helped, and housed. We are not helping the mentally ill in a reactive state.

We as a Department are changing the way we do things for the safety of the community, and to develop stronger relationships with the people we serve. We need for Mental Health agencies to do the same and join us with us. We have tried everything else; it is time to try something that may actually work if we give it a chance.

 

Sincerely


Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph
Los Angeles Police Department Central Division

Comments

I appreciate you true story and i will do better to help more people. My boy friend is homeless and i bring him what i think he needs when i can. I always look for things his friends might need too.

Your post brought me to tears. You all are so compassionate and hard working on an issue that definitely is societal and communal. I wish the help needed would arrive faster. May you all be safe while working.

Thank you for this inspiring message. I know all too well the effects of what mental illness can do to an individual, their family, and the community. I witnessed my own mother struggle with her serious illness for years. Helplessly, I watched a thriving, and educated Triage Nurse deteriorate to nothing more than a homeless, confused, and erratic being. It was heart-breaking, and something I will never over come. Had my mother lived long enough for me to grow up, and become a responsible citizen, I would've been able to do so much more to help her. I've spoke with many family members of the mentally ill, and they all share many of the frustrations you have addressed in this blog. I encourage family members to step up a little higher to help in anyway they can to find treatment, and resources for their loved ones. I know how difficult this can be. But, who else will really help them like a family member would? I suspect Officer Joseph's dedication is rare among the many public servants for the mentally ill. America is by far, the guiltiest of taking the least care of their mentally I'll too. If you read about how other European countries address their mentally ill citizens, the programs, the treatment, and challenges, you will learn how far behind the United States is. We do NOT care or address the needs of the mentally ill in this country. Nobody wants to deal with these people, and it's very sad. I will make more of an effort to volunteer, and do what I can to help...in memory of my mother. Thanks,

Never thought police officers thought that deeply on the issue. This is one of those moments when I am happy I am wrong. Great post. Long. But great.

There needs to be a coalition between HOMEOWNERS and LAPD on this issue. Frankly, we are the only ones with any vested interest in resolving this. If LAPD offered to host a conversation with RESIDENTS/HOMEOWNERS, we just might all find that we all have the same concerns, and could approach City Hall as a majority. I also look at the clearly mentally ill homeless and am terrified for how they WILL be victims of predators on these streets. It is absolutely shameful for us to allow people who are not able to make rational decisions to live this way. Academics and NGO's can live in their idealistic dreamworlds, but here in the real world, it is simply wrong to not get these people into some sort of treatment, whether they want it or not. There was $73M allocated to LAHSA this year. Where is my tax money going?

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