The City of Los Angeles does not want the Los Angeles Police Department to be the lead agency for homeless outreach, said Captain Jay Mastick of Harbor Division. The LAPD works in a supportive role with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and the Bureau of Sanitation’s Watershed Protection Division. The department is charged with providing protections for both organizations while they do their jobs.
“It is the department’s position that we don’t want to be in the homeless business; we want to be in the security and safety business, as more of a guardian model, more so than an enforcement model when it comes to homeless issues,” Mastick said.
Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement unit, or HOPE unit is the primary group that the LAPD uses to interact with homeless people. Cleaning and Rapid Engagement, or CARE, is the primary tool the LAPD uses to clean up homeless encampments. CARE is coordinated by the Unified Homelessness Response Center.
“The HOPE unit [is] right now focused out of the South Bureau, which serves all of South Los Angeles; they come out and facilitate cleanups and also offer wraparound services,” Mastick said.
There are three major homeless encampments within Harbor Divison’s jurisdiction. The first is in San Pedro, on South Beacon Street and W. 8th Street; the second is in Harbor City, on McCoy Avenue and Lomita Boulevard; and third is on East F Street and Broad Avenue in Wilmington. Mastick said the Harbor Division has a quality of life unit that goes to these encampments and facilitates cleanups when the HOPE unit is unavailable.
Mastick said officers who participate in cleanups have a training curriculum for dealing with homeless people, but he has not attended.
“Police are extremely good at what they do and what they’re trained to do,” said Amber Sheikh Ginsberg, who heads the Council District 15 Working Group on Homelessness. “Of course, I wish they had more training. But they aren’t trained social workers or case managers.”
Sheikh Ginsberg said it’s not the best idea to give police the role of working with folks that are vulnerable, traumatized and possibly mentally ill.
“They’re trained to be on high alert all the time because they’re trained to be taking on jobs that are dangerous, that are, you know, responding to really high-need, high-risk situations,” Sheikh Ginsberg said. “And, it’s definitely not the right approach to managing individuals experiencing homelessness.
“Our police do amazing work, and … what they do I could definitely never do, [but] they are not social workers, they are not caseworkers and they are not trained or given the proper training to do that. So, I do not think it’s a good alignment to have them out there working with individuals experiencing homelessness in any of those ways.”
Mastick said that the problem of homelessness should be dealt with using a proper balance of resources, outreach, wraparound services and cleanups.
“It is not the department’s position to criminalize homelessness; that’s not the department’s position at all,” Mastick said. “It’s more of dealing with it on a systemic level.”
The Harbor Division will still respond to calls for service and to crimes committed against homeless people, or by homeless people, Mastick said. The Harbor Division has had homeless people as victims of crimes, as well as suspects and witnesses.
“Back in January we had a homicide at the homeless encampment located at 8th and Beacon,” Mastick said. “So, that is absolutely a law enforcement concern. It will take the highest priority and we’ll come out that night, and deal with the homicide like we would deal with any other homicide, in a professional, comprehensive matter.”
Sheikh Ginsberg said there is room for the LAPD to scale back its interactions with homeless people.
“The way for us to solve this is for everyone to do what they do best and for everyone to do what they are trained at doing,” Sheikh Ginsberg said. “We have great caseworkers, social workers out there working to place people into housing, or get people the services they need, or even just begin relationships with people.”
These social workers are trained to work with people that have struggled with substance abuse or mental health abuse or have been through trauma, including the trauma of living on the streets. Police do not receive the training and support that they would need to do that job effectively, Sheikh Ginsberg said.
“A lot of our Harbor Division police officers … try their hardest, honestly, given their lack of knowledge, experience and training,” Sheikh Ginsberg noted. “I have seen a lot of Harbor Division police officers truly try to just tap into their own humanity and try to come at it with that while trying to keep everyone as safe as possible. That being said, [it’s] not an ideal situation.”
Mastick believes the LAPD could have less interaction with homeless people in the future.
“In terms of seeking resolution, long-term lasting solutions for that, I believe the department as a whole would like to see our role out of that equation,” Mastick said.
However, for the police to have less interaction with homeless people, there are a few things Mastick said would need to happen.
“We’d have to have a lead agency that goes out there and deals with the issue effectively, Mastick said.
Sheikh Ginsberg recognizes that there are some larger issues around LAPD working with homeless people generally in Los Angeles, but she believes that the Harbor Division has a pretty good relationship with most of the homeless people with whom they work, it’s just a small percentage of the homeless population.
“In the Harbor Area, you know how many folks are experiencing homelessness right now?” Sheikh Ginsberg asked, rhetorically. “The percentage that they probably interface with is probably closer to 10% of the actual [total homeless] population.”
She said that the homeless people that Harbor Division works with struggle with substance abuse or mental health.
Mastick said the Harbor Division responds to calls that complain about homeless people — things like blocking the sidewalk, defecating on the street, as well as the buildup of trash. But it does not typically respond as the lead agency, but rather in a supportive role.
On July 1, the Los Angeles City Council voted 12-2 to reduce the LAPD budget by $150 million in the next fiscal year. Councilman Joe Buscaino and Councilman John Lee voted against the motion.
The application of those cuts and their impact on specific services is an ongoing process, Mastick said. “But in terms of radio calls for service, if we have a crime we’re still going to come,” he said. “And I can tell you that five years from now, 10 years from now, if we get a victim of a crime who indicates a crime happened, we’re going to come out.”
Capt. Mastick is in command of some 344 patrol officers in Harbor Division on a rotating 28-day deployment. It is uncertain at this point how many officers would be freed up if they were not policing the homeless or being the first responders to mental health crises. According to a recent Los Angeles Times analysis of the last 10 years of 911 calls for service a small percentage of them were for violent crimes.
Sheikh Ginsberg does not believe the city should direct LAPD resources to serve homeless individuals — unless it’s a high risk, criminal situation.
“To just be responding to people’s needs, it’s honestly silly to have policemen do it,” Sheikh Ginsberg said. “We should be allocating funding, more funding, to have folks that are trained do it.”
Sheikh Ginsberg believes there is a large misconception about the phrase “defund the police.”
“It’s not about taking police away from us, it’s about using the limited resources we have in smarter ways that once again, everyone is doing what they do best,” she said.