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Crime & Justice

Ties are tense between the police and people of Skid Row

About 150 people protest fatal Skid Row LAPD shooting outside police headquarters Tuesday.
About 150 people protest fatal Skid Row LAPD shooting outside police headquarters Tuesday.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Stuart will appear at Skylight Books (1818 N Vermont Av, L.A.) on Sunday, September 11th at 5 p.m.

The streets of downtown L.A.'s Skid Row are a world like no other, with more than 17,000 people framed together in a space just over 4 square miles.

It's the epicenter of the city's homelessness problem, but it's also home to people who are just out of luck and living in poverty.

And for those trying to get out, some may see a helping hand as a hand ready to slap you down.

It's what's termed "therapeutic policing," according to sociologist Forrest Stuart in his new book, "Down, Out and Under Arrest: policing and everyday life in Skid Row."

"It's this use of really coercive, really punitive measures," says Stuart, "to try and push people into services and to essentially make better life choices."

For example, if someone enters a crosswalk when the countdown clock is ticking down, that is illegal according to state law.

Police in Skid Row would target people who do that and give them a ticket.

At the same time, however, those officers will say the ticket can go away IF that person gets assistance from one of the nearby social service providers.

"There's this notion that people have chosen to be poor, that people have chosen to have chronic addictions," says Stuart. "When we talk to officers, one of the ideas is, 'I want to make this place as uncomfortable as physically possible so people don't want to live here.'"

Stuart says that officers, themselves, see that they are acting out of compassion for the people of Skid Row and that those social services will help get them off the streets and out of the neighborhood.

"What I was hearing time after time was that these officers would have to throw their hands up and say, 'I'm not a social worker, I'm not a case worker. But yet the city has asked me to deal with all of these social issues,'" says Stuart.

Meanwhile, the people of Skid Row getting those citations viewed service organizations with suspicion and distrust, according to Stuart.

Couples would need to be apart because shelters and services are separated by gender, for instance, or shelters would force residents to abandon most of their belongings to bring in just one bag with them.

"These spaces – people look at them as not a real, viable alternative," he says, "but now they've got police saying, 'Either you go into these places or else we're going to arrest you.'"

Stuart concludes that a better – and less costly – alternative to therapeutic policing is a focus on building permanent affordable housing for those in need, complemented with support services as needed.

"Rather than posing a dichotomy between, 'Let's push them towards services' or 'Put people in jail,' I think there's a third way that, at this point in time, practically pays for itself," he says.

Listen to the full interview with Stuart by clicking the audio player above.