LAPD deal restricts searches on homeless

By Richard Winton and Cara Mia DiMassa
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles police officers face significant restrictions on how they search and detain people under a settlement announced Thursday in a long-running case involving the rights of the homeless on skid row.

The agreement comes 18 months after a federal judge found that the Los Angeles Police Department was unconstitutionally searching homeless people in the skid row area as part of Chief William J. Bratton's crackdown on downtown crime.

Although the LAPD has strongly disputed the judge's findings, officials agreed to more than a dozen conditions under which officers would be prohibited from searching people they encounter on the street.

Officers will no longer be allowed to search people caught jaywalking, sleeping on the street or cited and released in the field for minor offenses. Officers also are prohibited from handcuffing subjects unless there is reasonable suspicion that "a subject poses a physical threat to officers or others, may destroy evidence, flee, or otherwise interfere with the officers' legitimate investigation."

Officers are also limited on when they can do warrant checks on people they encounter in the street. Such checks are only allowed if they can be done in "reasonable time," so that the person is not unduly detained.

Also included in the settlement is a mandate that officers assigned to skid row undergo special training regarding the constitutional requirements for searching and detaining people.

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said the settlement is significant because of the specific rules it sets out, which give officers little wiggle room.

"This settlement to some degree is more like a handbook for police behavior in this scenario," Levenson said. "It is unusual in a settlement to get into such details. But the details here put more teeth in the settlement than we ordinarily see."

LAPD officials said that they don't think their officers have violated the rights of homeless people and that they don't believe the restriction will affect their ability to patrol the city.

American Civil Liberties Union officials said the agreement marks an important check on aggressive policing. "The Constitution protects every Angeleno against unlawful stops and searches, from those living in Hollywood Hills to those sleeping on the streets of downtown," said Peter Bibring, an ACLU of Southern California staff attorney who represented plaintiffs in the case against the city.

"This is an important step in showing aggressive policing is not going to solve the problems of homelessness," he said.

The case settled this week, Fitzgerald vs. City of Los Angeles, originated in 2003, shortly after Bratton -- who was known for his policing concentrated on "quality of life crimes" -- arrived in Los Angeles and ordered a crackdown on crime in the skid row area. That year, the ACLU complained that the LAPD was stopping and searching people on skid row without reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime. The ACLU won an initial injunction barring the LAPD from such behavior.

Despite the litigation, Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa brought a long-promised strike force to skid row, with the Safer City Initiative. Fifty additional police officers, on bike and foot, fanned out across the area, where drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves often operated openly on the streets. Street crime declined and arrests soared. But homeless advocates condemned the effort as ignoring civil rights and targeting minor crimes rather than serious criminals, and the ACLU charged that officers were violating the rights of skid row residents by illegally searching them.

In April 2007, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson ordered the LAPD to change its practices.

In the wake of Thursday's settlement, LAPD Capt. Jodi Wakefield said she disagreed with the judge's assessment of her officers' conduct. "But there's nothing wrong with us going back and making sure that our officers clearly understand the Constitution, and all the laws they have to abide by," she said. "I feel confident they do."

Paul M. Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, issued a statement praising the officers working in the central area. "LAPD officers working on skid row have always been and will continue to be sensitive to the special needs and conditions of the people who live in the community," the statement said.

Levenson said the attorneys are clearly trying to avoid a return to court on the issue. "You can really never cover every scenario, but you can give police officers more guidance. It helps everyone involved," she said. Still, she cautions, "it is one thing to put it on paper, it is another thing to see it happen on the street."

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

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