To police or not to police?
In Los Angeles, “defunding the police” led to disbanding a unit specially designed to help with homelessness
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Arek Arzoumanian was nervous. As the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation environmental compliance inspector, he stood at a residential street corner in Van Nuys—the Los Angeles neighborhood with the densest population of homelessness in the San Fernando Valley—getting ready to clear out an illegal homeless encampment. Most of the individuals living there had already packed up after getting notice of the cleanup, but several tents remained.
Arzoumanian warily eyed those tents. Those who refuse to leave always make his job difficult. Arzoumanian meets homeless people all day in his job—and 1 out of 10 get belligerent when his crew attempts to clear the area. Most conflict remains verbal: They shriek in outrage but comply, leaving in a storm of profanities. But sometimes, people throw feces and urine-slushy bottles, and occasionally physically charge at the workers.
Those were the times Arzoumanian was glad to have police officers nearby—and not just regular patrol officers, but Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement (HOPE) unit officers, whose sole job was to engage with the homeless community. These officers took 40 hours of mental health intervention training and developed long-term relationships with homeless individuals. They knew their names and their stories. They knew who’s mentally ill, who’s drug-addicted, who’s violent, and who’s reaching a breaking point. They collaborated with other agencies to provide individuals with help rather than arrest or cite them. And on cleanup days, they protected sanitation workers like Arzoumanian.
But now the HOPE officers are gone. Responding to protesters’ calls to cut police programs in 2020, city leaders voted to cut $150 million from the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget. The department decided to disband at least half a dozen specialized details, including units focusing on sexual assault, burglary/cargo theft, and animal cruelty. The biggest of those units was the HOPE program, with 45 officers and four sergeants. Leaders originally set March 14 as the date to disband the unit, but attrition within the LAPD forced them to spike the unit earlier. By mid-February, it was gone.
When Mayor Eric Garcetti first introduced the HOPE team in 2016, he described the initiative as “a homelessness ‘super team.’” The LA City Council had declared a state of emergency because of the city’s homelessness, and HOPE was part of its comprehensive plan to tackle it.
By then homelessness and its socioeconomic complexities had become one of the most challenging issues for law enforcement. LAPD responds to more than 100,000 homelessness-related calls a year (out of about 975,000 calls). Police are usually the first to respond when someone sees a man passed out on a bus stop bench, or when a tent pops up in a public park.
Yet being homeless is not a crime. So with the disbandment of the HOPE team, LA will again wrestle with a big question: What role should law enforcement play in responding to issues in homelessness?
BEFORE THE BUDGET CUTS, the HOPE team was one answer. The team also consisted of sanitation workers and LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) outreach workers. The multidisciplinary program had two goals: connect homeless people with housing and services, and maintain the public health. HOPE was a long-due recognition that arresting or fining individuals for sleeping on the streets doesn’t work.
By 2016, Garcetti had called for an “all-hands-on-deck” and “innovative and powerful” approach to solving LA’s homeless crisis, saying a collaborative effort between police officers, outreach workers, and sanitation workers would lead to better community cleanups and access to help for the vulnerable. Standing by him was Councilwoman Nury Martinez, whose district in the San Fernando Valley housed the first HOPE team. Martinez described it as “a great start” and “a balanced approach to homeless encampments.”
Then public sentiment toward the police soured. After George Floyd’s death in May 2020, many anti-racism activists focused conversation about racial justice on policing: They claimed police officers enact too much violence with too little accountability. Some discussed specific policing reforms, but a loud group of activists insisted that police departments were broken beyond repair. Activists in LA demanded cutting 90 percent of the city’s police budget.
“Honestly, after the police leave, I’m not sure how much we can perform our job.”
The “defund the police” group raised many of the same concerns that led to the creation of the HOPE team in the first place: Should dealing with homelessness be the responsibility of a police officer, who’s armed with deadly weapons and more than likely unequipped to handle complex psychological and social issues? Why invest so much money in policing instead of in agencies better suited to handle social issues? The group also pointed to troubling statistics: In the first six months of 2020, one-third of LAPD officers’ use of force involved a homeless person.
In many major progressive cities, the “defund the police” voices drowned out the “police reform” voices. Public pressure successfully pushed many mayors and city council members to slash police department budgets—some said a refusal to do so was synonymous with not caring about racial justice. Garcetti was one of the mayors who reluctantly caved: In June 2020, he proposed to redirect $150 million from the LAPD budget to social programs in disadvantaged communities. Backing him once again was Martinez, who led the City Council in voting to slash $150 million from the LAPD budget. In a statement, she said the council will be “looking at public safety through a very different and more accurate lens.”
That same month, an LAHSA supervisor sent an impassioned email to all her co-workers, urging LAHSA to “immediately dissolve” its partnership with any law enforcement agencies, including HOPE, and expand its operation without the police. The supervisor, who’s white, argued she can’t make meaningful connections with black homeless individuals with police by her side. She then drafted a petition demanding LAHSA cut all ties with the police. More than 9,000 people signed.
A $150 million reduction from the LAPD’s gargantuan $1.8 billion operating budget was a symbolic gesture aimed at briefly satisfying public demands. But six months later, the council’s plan to direct about $88.8 million of those funds to projects such as street resurfacing, street sweeping, and exercise equipment for parks drew the ire of activists, who called it “glorified pork barrel spending.”
PEOPLE LIKE THE SUPERVISOR point out that many homeless individuals don’t trust the police because of previous trauma or negative experiences with law enforcement. But whether the police partner with LAHSA or not, inevitably, officers will at some point interact with the homeless.
Homeless individuals are the most vulnerable crime victims: In 2019, overall crime in LA decreased by 5 percent from 2018, but crimes against the homeless increased by 26 percent. Crimes with homeless victims have risen 17-fold within the last decade.
Sometimes it’s the homeless themselves who commit crimes. According to the most recent LAPD report, felony arrests of homeless individuals increased 19 percent from the past year. Other behaviors related to homelessness can also become a public safety issue: In one ride-along with the HOPE team at the LA River, I saw the sanitation crew confiscate nine large butane tanks from a homeless encampment underneath a bridge.
That’s why Arzoumanian, the environmental compliance inspector, dreaded the day the HOPE unit disappeared. “It’s horrible,” he told me, shaking his head. “The police had my back.”
I met him at 8 a.m. on a cold day in December, weeks before the HOPE unit disbanded. Normally, cleanup starts at 7 a.m., but per city law, the homeless can keep their tents up if temperatures fall below 50 degrees. The Valley HOPE team unit lead at the time, Sgt. Jerald Case, checked the weather on his iPhone: 48 degrees. So the sanitation crew members and LAHSA outreach workers waited in their vehicles while HOPE officers stood by the sidewalks with pink cheeks, stamping their feet and murmuring to each other.
At 8:41 a.m., Case checked his iPhone again: 52 degrees. Arzoumanian directed his crew to clean up an alley that was peppered with discarded clothing, plastic wrappers, and used needles. As his crew swept and tossed shopping carts into a trash truck, Arzoumanian approached a woman refusing to take down her tent.
She looked to be in her early 30s, with a bean-sprout frame, pointy chin, and light brown hair cropped short. She sat in a urine puddle inside her tent, which took up the entire breadth of the sidewalk. Boxes, beer crates, and random pieces of furniture, including a black leather swivel chair, surrounded her tent like a protective moat. When Arzoumanian called to her, she popped her head out and glared at him.
Arzoumanian reminded her to pack her stuff into a 60-gallon container so the crew could clean the area. “Let me know how much time you need,” he cajoled her.
“Later, later,” the woman mumbled.
“OK, how much later?” Arzoumanian asked.
The woman became agitated. She rocked her head side to side: “You’re not going to touch my things. I’m a judge. I kill people!”
Arzoumanian pleaded with her, but by then she was hysterical and threatened him. “Don’t touch my [profanity]!” she hollered. “Every time I see you, you take my stuff! My only job is to kill, that’s all I know to do.”
As she began threatening to rape him, Arzoumanian turned to me with a pained, frustrated expression: “See what I’m talking about? This is too difficult.”
The HOPE officers stood watching several feet away, arms folded. Case walked up to Arzoumanian and asked him in a low voice, “How do you want us to proceed?” Arzoumanian decided against using force, and instead asked LAHSA outreach workers to call the Department of Mental Health and send a psychiatrist. “At this point, if we do anything, I think she’ll get violent,” he explained to me. I asked if someone would arrive in time. He shrugged: “They might take a week, who knows.”
Meanwhile, two young men filmed the entire encounter with their cell phones. They filmed the sanitation workers as they swept the trash-strewn asphalt streets and power-washed the urine-stained sidewalks. They swiveled their cell phones on the HOPE unit officers, who pointedly ignored them. “Paid protesters,” Case whispered to me. “How do you know?” I asked. Case said the first time the HOPE team arrived to clean the area last August, more than 70 protesters barricaded themselves between the homeless and the police. His officers heard a woman promise to pay them overtime if they stayed longer.
I walked up to the two protesters. One of them was a lanky 24-year-old man with dark matted hair and pierced ears. He declined to give his full name but identified himself as Chloe S. I asked what he does for a living. “Um … I do some art,” he replied. “So … an artist?” I clarified. He shrugged: “Um, sure. Yeah. I’m just a concerned neighbor who has compassion for people on the streets. We’re here because they’re here,” he said, indicating the HOPE officers.
Chloe said he shows up at the encampment cleanups every week to protest because police are abusing the homeless: “We come to advocate for the unhoused people here. We want to mitigate the damage the city does against them.” He said police officers “cause extreme mental distress” to the homeless by “lying” that they can keep their things, then throw them away.
I asked Case about Chloe’s claims, and he bristled: “We don’t take anybody’s stuff. We just do what the sanitation crew requests. Again, we’re just here for support.” He said in the almost four years he’d been HOPE unit lead, no officer had ever used a baton or a stun gun on a homeless individual. According to a recent LAPD report, out of the 5,107 times a HOPE officer interacted with someone experiencing homelessness between January and June of 2020, they used force four times, none resulting in serious injury.
The HOPE officers could have forcibly removed the woman in the tent, but they didn’t. Both HOPE officers and the outreach team offered her shelter, services, and opportunities to reconnect with family. They gave her a 72-hour notice about the cleanup, then a two-hour notice. They gave her a bag to store 60 gallons of property and offered free 90-day storage for any other nonhazardous items. They waited until the temperature was warm enough before clearing the encampment.
“It’s very sad,” Arzoumanian told me, his eyebrows turning downward. He knows the woman is suffering. But he also has a job. “The reality is, this is not going anywhere,” he said, pointing at the woman, the tents, the trash, and the encampment. Then he lowered his voice: “Honestly, after the police leave, I’m not sure how much we can perform our job.”
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