Members of the Los Angeles Police Commission signaled Tuesday that they want the LAPD to find ways to reduce the number of homeless people it cites and arrests for minor offenses.
Officers arrested more than 6,000 homeless people last year for misdemeanors like trespassing, drug offenses and failing to appear in court, according to a department report.
"I want to see fewer arrests, fewer citations," said Commissioner Shane Murphy-Goldsmith.
LAPD brass defended the arrest numbers.
"We use it as a last resort," said Chief Charlie Beck, adding he believes officers will become more skilled over time at finding ways to avoid arresting homeless people.
Beck also foresaw a growing role for the department in Los Angeles' effort to tackle the homelessness crisis. He said as soon as the city is ready to provide more homeless services, he’ll be ready to assign more officers to help people get those services.
Commander Dominic Choi – who leads the LAPD’s efforts to combat homelessness – said officers only arrest people after repeated warnings.
"How can we reduce the number? The way to do that is to house those individuals," he said.
But homelessness has been growing faster than the amount of housing, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
Providing shelter for the chronically homeless in L.A. County would require over 20,000 new units, it said. That’s 5,000 more than was projected two years ago when voters approved a $1.2-billion bond measure to build housing for the chronically homeless.
Public comment during Tuesday’s police commission meeting reflected the debate over the LAPD’s role: Is it to enforce laws homeless people are breaking or to focus more on helping social workers get people into housing?
While LAPD officials stressed their primary role is public safety, most speakers said the department needs to look more compassionately toward the homeless population, which includes many people dealing with mental health problems and drug addiction.
Civil rights attorney Carol Sobel said it makes no sense to arrest someone who refuses to move their belongings off a sidewalk – even after repeated warnings.
"What is gained by that?" she asked.
Commissioner Murphy-Goldsmith said she believes the LAPD is committed to alternative approaches.
"That’s the purpose of HOPE teams and all the other programs to reach out to homeless people," said Murphy-Goldsmith. HOPE, which stands for Homeless Outreach and Pro-Active Engagement, is a program involving 38 officers who work with sanitation crews and social workers to clean up camps and refer people to homeless services and housing.
The department also has a team of officers who concentrate on Skid Row and another that can be called upon by patrol cops when they encounter someone with mental health problems.
But just 23 people were placed into permanent housing through the HOPE program in 2017, and another 48 are using vouchers for temporary rooms right now.