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LA sheriff: Don't arrest homeless, get them into services

FILE - This Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 file photo shows tents from a homeless encampment line a street in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles city and county officials have approved sweeping plans to deal with homelessness at a cost of billions over a decade. The City Council's strategic plan calls for providing more housing and funding programs designed to keep people off the streets in the first place. The city has around 25,000 homeless, more than half the total in LA County. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel,File) Richard Vogel/AP

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell unveiled a new policy Tuesday evening, instructing deputies to avoid arresting the homeless and try to get them into services instead.

The policy change comes at the behest of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Earlier this year, the board approved a 47-point plan to address homelessness in the county. In it is a recommendation that the sheriff's department develop a comprehensive decriminalization policy for law enforcement to adhere to when interacting with the region's homeless population. The board passed its package of reforms in February. Sheriff's officials said McDonnell hopes to start training deputies in the new policy this fall and put it into effect January 1, 2017.

"Critics of law enforcement allege that society's solution is to arrest our way out of this social problem," McDonnell said Tuesday. "But our department is taking a firm stand that being homeless is not a crime."

Chief Jim Hellmold, the sheriff department's liaison for the homeless initiative said deputies would still retain the right to arrest homeless people who interfere with public safety or present a "continued nuisance."

"If someone's urinating on the sidewalk and won't stop and won't leave, we still may have to arrest them," Hellmold told KPCC. "But our priority is to divert."

The handfuls of community members who attended the forum largely supported the policy shift. Compton resident Gilda Bluebird said she hopes it comes with increased resources for her town.

"There are no shelters, there are no mental health facilities," she said. "There's nowhere we can turn to help."

McDonnell acknowledged that will be a challenge for patrol deputies called in by neighbors to respond to someone who's, for example, urinating on the sidewalk or yelling. 

"Without the resources in the community for us to use as an alternative to incarceration, we're limited when we have someone acting out on their illness," he said. "So our hope going forward is to use this as a bully pulpit and make the case to our community and our legislators why we need additional funding for mental health services."

McDonnell is also looking for more funding for training deputies in how to interact better with homeless. Currently, he said, the plan is only partially funded, and training at the sheriff's academy doesn't equip deputies to deal with homeless, especially those suffering from mental illness.

"We train people to have command presence, to look them in the eye, to use firm grip where appropriate, to be very directive" he said. "If you do what we train you to do with someone with autism or some other cognitive disorder, you're guaranteed a use of force."

Lowering use of force numbers, he said, will be one way of measuring whether or not the policy change is effective. 

LASD officials did not have numbers on how much the county spends on arresting homeless people, but Hellmold said interacting with the homeless is an "everyday" part of first responders' jobs in the county. 

Last year, the Los Angeles City Administrator estimated the City of L.A. spends about $100 million a year on homelessness issues, the bulk of it on law enforcement. The Los Angeles Police Department said it spent anywhere from $56 to $86 million in one year on homelessness, not including the cost of patrol officers' time. 

Over 14 percent of those arrested by LAPD in 2013 were homeless. 

The 2016 homeless census counted nearly 28,000 homeless in the city and an additional 19,000 in the county at large. 

While LAPD patrols the City of L.A., a smattering of local law enforcement agencies patrol the smaller cities, many of which contract with the sheriff's department for law enforcement. The LASD also patrols the Metro transit lines. 

*This story has been updated