Police, Civilians Navigate Tense Relationship On LA's Skid Row

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NPR's Kelly McEvers and Tom Dreisbach go to Los Angeles' Skid Row to investigate the tensions between the people who live there and the police.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On March 1, police shot and killed an unarmed homeless man on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Skid Row is about 20 square blocks of downtown LA. Thousands of people there live on the streets in tents, shelters or in subsidized housing. The police presence is heavy. NPR's Kelly McEvers and Tom Dreisbach recently spent a night on Skid Row reporting, first heard on Weekend All Things Considered. And here's more on the tensions they found in this part of LA.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Skid Row is a really intense place. Walking around you see a lot of people - homeless people, people with mental illness and drug addiction, people who just got out of jail - sleeping, selling stuff, drinking, yelling, going in and out of social service agencies.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: And, of course, there's crime.

MCEVERS: That's why for the past several years the LAPD has put 50 extra cops on Skid Row.

DREISBACH: It's called the Safer Cities Initiative. On the streets, the idea is that if you repeatedly cite or arrest people for little crimes like jaywalking, drinking in public, blocking sidewalks...

MCEVERS: ...People will be less likely to commit the big crimes. But, as you're about to hear, it's a strategy that's made a lot of people angry on Skid Row.

DREISBACH: So our plan was to spend one night looking at this from both sides.

MCEVERS: I would be with the people who live on Skid Row - check, check.

DREISBACH: And I would be with the police on the Safer Cities team - check, check, check, all right.

The night starts at 7 p.m. I'm on foot patrol with a couple of officers when we walk past a group of men sitting on the sidewalk. One guy has a big red water bottle at his feet. Officer Michael Orozco stops to talk to him.

MICHAEL OROZCO: What's your name? Do I know you?

TERRY JACKSON: No, you don't know me.

OROZCO: Do me a favor, man. Stand up. Is that your bag? I'm going to grab this seat and come over here and sit down with you. I want to talk to you.

JACKSON: I ain't did nothing. What the reason I do?

DREISBACH: Officer Orozco grabs a chair and the water bottle and they walk down the block. The man sits in the chair, gives his name as Terry Jackson and asks why he's been stopped.

OROZCO: It's because I believe this to be...

JACKSON: Hey, man, it's not in a - it's not an open container.

OROZCO: ...An alcoholic beverage.

JACKSON: It's closed.

DREISBACH: Officer Orozco opens the lid, and he and I can smell that it's beer inside.

OROZCO: Do me a favor, man. Stand up. Dude, stand up. I'm tired of you. I'm tired of your mouth.

DREISBACH: Jackson stands up, face to the wall. And Officer Orozco puts him in handcuffs.

OROZCO: So check it out. You're going to get a ticket for that...

JACKSON: For what?

OROZCO: So check it out. You're going to get a ticket for that...

JACKSON: What?

OROZCO: ...For that concealed alcoholic beverage.

JACKSON: It ain't in no can. It ain't even...

OROZCO: All right.

JACKSON: It's not even mine.

OROZCO: OK.

DREISBACH: At this point, more people stop to watch. Terry Jackson, the man in handcuffs, starts yelling. And it's pretty clear the police shooting of the homeless man that got so much attention last month is on his mind.

JACKSON: You put these handcuffs on me all you want. What you want to do - beat me, too?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).

JACKSON: You want to shoot? You want to shoot? You want to shoot me? You want to shoot somebody else?

DREISBACH: By now, a couple people are taking videos on their cell phones, and the officers call for an additional unit.

JACKSON: Yeah, call more back up, so y'all can kill somebody else.

DREISBACH: A third officer pulls up, and things eventually calm down. Orozco uncuffs Jackson. He's not under arrest, but he does give him a citation for an open container. Here on Skid Row, police give out these citations all the time. And if people don't show up for their court date, then a warrant will be issued for their arrest. Officer Orozco says those arrests help keep the peace.

OROZCO: We can remove them from the street, even if at least it's temporary for the evening, and it actually calms the situation.

DREISBACH: For one night, Orozco says, it's one less person breaking the law on Skid Row.

MCEVERS: But the people who live on Skid Row say giving them all these citations and putting them in jail doesn't fix things. It only gets them used to getting citations and being in jail. While Tom was with the police, I was about 10 blocks away walking around with a guy who goes by the name T.C. He doesn't want us to use his real name.

T.C.: I'll tell you, sister.

MCEVERS: Yep.

T.C.: I love Skid Row. Am I on?

MCEVERS: Yes.

T.C.: There's no people in this world more realer than people on Skid Row.

MCEVERS: T.C. has lived on Skid Row off and on since the '80s. He also volunteers for an organization that protests against police. How many times have you been arrested down here?

T.C.: I got arrested 13 times in 2012.

MCEVERS: For things like sleeping on the sidewalk, he says, or sitting on a crate.

They say that the more you arrest people, you know, the more likely they are to change or maybe leave.

T.C.: Leave - leave and go where?

MCEVERS: Leave and go back home.

T.C.: Go back to the same misery that they left? I find that ridiculous.

MCEVERS: Later around 11 p.m., T.C. and I run into a guy who goes by the name K.B. He doesn't want us to use his real name either. He says the police stop him a lot to.

K.B.: Usually, it's for a jaywalking or drinking in public ticket.

MCEVERS: So how many times, like, this year have you been stopped?

K.B.: Probably about 10 times.

MCEVERS: K.B. is different from T.C. He says getting stopped and arrested all these times actually changes the way he does things.

K.B.: Yeah, it does. In a certain way, it lets me know that I am being watched and I need to straighten up my act, slow down on alcohol and stuff like that, because I need to start respecting myself.

MCEVERS: But K.B. says it still doesn't mean he's any closer to leaving Skid Row or that he trusts the police to help make Skid Row a better place while he's here.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIREN)

DREISBACH: By now it's about 1 a.m. - about halfway through our night on Skid Row in downtown LA. - when I start to see how hard it is to police a place where so many people have mental illness.

OROZCO: You guys called?

DREISBACH: A building security guard has reported that a resident is breaking windows. We walk up to the man's room. His hands are bloody, and there's blood on the floor.

OROZCO: What happened to your hand?

DREISBACH: The man tells an officer he has depression and schizophrenia.

OROZCO: You hearing voices today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At times I do.

OROZCO: What are the voices telling you to do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nothing right now.

OROZCO: Nothing right now, OK.

DREISBACH: Paramedics come, patch up his hands and release him.

UNIDENTIFIED PARAMEDIC: You going to be all right, man.

DREISBACH: Nobody presses charges.

MCEVERS: This is what police are responding to a lot on Skid Row - people with mental illness and drug addiction.

DREISBACH: That's what people say the homeless man, who was shot and killed by police last month, was dealing with.

MCEVERS: People who live here say if police patrolled Skid Row alongside mental health professionals, they might be able to avoid similar shootings in the future.

DREISBACH: The police largely agree. They say they need a lot more mental health resources.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RADIO)

DREISBACH: So we're about at the end of the shift. It's 2:30 a.m. I'm in the police car.

MCEVERS: And I'm out on the street. We think it's quieting down. We are wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

MCEVERS: OK, that was a gunshot. A bunch of people scatter.

DREISBACH: A description of a suspect goes out on the police radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RADIO)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE DISPATCHER: Male across the street armed with a gun and a knife.

DREISBACH: Police dispatch four cars.

MCEVERS: A couple of the black and whites are kind of milling around.

DREISBACH: At first, police are told the security guard has been shot and stabbed at a shelter. They go to investigate.

MCEVERS: But I'm standing right at the shelter, and I don't see the police get out of their cars. And even if they did, no one is talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RADIO)

DREISBACH: The shelter tells police nobody got shot. The police go back on regular patrol.

MCEVERS: And the people just go back to what they're doing on Skid Row. People here on Skid Row say a big part of the problem is this - the police are there when you don't need them, like busting you for jaywalking, and not there when you do, like investigating a gunshot or helping you manage a mental health crisis.

DREISBACH: The police say the people on Skid Row can't have it both ways. Police can't protect and serve if people won't help them.

MCEVERS: So again, the two sides kind of see a lot of the same problems on Skid Row.

DREISBACH: But they just can't agree about how to fix them.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Time to wake up. Break down your tent.

DREISBACH: A few hours later, it's 6 a.m. The sun's coming up, and the next shift of police are driving around.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

MCEVERS: After six, it's illegal to have your tent up on the sidewalk.

DREISBACH: It's another one of those small crimes you can get cited for.

MCEVERS: The police don't always enforce it.

DREISBACH: Some people haven't even gone to sleep yet.

MCEVERS: Other people are about to start another day.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Get up. Break down your tent.

CORNISH: That was NPR's Kelly McEvers and Tom Dreisbach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.