CITY HALL — Police officers here have made far fewer arrests for alleged violations of Santa Monica’s anti-camping law since the American Civil Liberties Union last July accused city officials of using the law to drive homeless people out of town, police statistics show.
Officers made an average of 21.9 arrests per month for illegal camping during the 12-month period before the suit was filed, but just 3.1 arrests per month during the 10 months after the ACLU made its allegations, according to statistics provided by the Santa Monica Police Department.
City Hall officials, though, said they stood by their original statements that the ACLU suit, which was settled this month, had no effect on the police department’s enforcement policy.
“There was no change whatsoever in response to the ACLU lawsuit,” said Lance Gams, a lawyer in the City Attorney’s Office who worked on the case.
The lower arrest figures, Gams said, could be explained by a combination of factors, including a 19 percent decrease in Santa Monica’s homeless population in January of 2010 compared with the year before and more effective work to connect homeless individuals with social service providers. The filing of the lawsuit also coincided with the end of a three-month police operation focused on decreasing crime in Downtown that as a side-effect reduced instances of illegal camping, he said.
In any case, officers have continued to enforce the anti-camping ordinance since the suit was filed July 14, Gams said. The SMPD made between one and six arrests per month for illegal camping since then, the data show.
“Even if the numbers are down, we are still enforcing our ordinance, we just feel that other things are working well, allowing us to have lower numbers [of] arrests. And we think that’s a good thing for everybody,” Gams said.
To Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, those explanations for the sharp decline in anti-camping arrests failed to pass “the straight-face test.”
“Those are the sort of explanations that you hear on the ‘Colbert Report,’” he said, referencing Comedy Central’s satirical news program.
The arrest data, he said, are clear proof the lawsuit caused police officers to change their tactics.
“The only intervening factor between June and July is the lawsuit, and there is a precipitous drop [in arrests],” he said. “There’s no other causal factor than the lawsuit and the public shaming that resulted.”
Rosenbaum said the arrest statistics should prompt Santa Monica officials to retract a press release posted on City Hall’s website that claims Santa Monica made “no change in any city law, policy or practice” to settle the ACLU’s suit.
“They ought to take that off their website instantly, brand it pulp fiction, tell the truth and redirect their efforts to ending homelessness altogether,” he said.
That appears extremely unlikely, as officials maintained there was no connection between the lower number of arrests and the ACLU’s claims.
Councilman Richard Bloom said he’s confident no instructions have been given to police officers to change enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance. He also denied the suit could have prompted officers to subconsciously refrain from making arrests for illegal camping.
He said City Hall’s explanation for the lower arrest numbers is credible.
“If we felt that there was a policy that we had been inappropriately enforcing in the city, we would have owned up to it, made a change in policy and moved on. We’re not beyond or above acknowledging errors and dealing with them … we’ve made errors in the past, but this wasn’t one of them,” Bloom said.
If police had stopped enforcing the anti-camping ordinance because of the ACLU suit, he said there would be more homeless people violating the ordinance in the city, but in fact there are fewer visible encampments than prior to the suit.
Gams added that the data from July 2009 suggest the lawsuit did not cause the drop-off in arrests. The ACLU suit was filed July 14, yet there were only 5 arrests under the anti-camping ordinance that month, down from 37 the month before. If the suit had been the cause for the decline, he argued there should have been at least 15 arrests during the first two weeks of the month before the suit was filed.
Police Chief Tim Jackman declined to be interviewed for this story and referred a request for comment on the arrest data to the City Attorney’s Office.
The ACLU’s complaint alleged Santa Monica had “for all intents and purposes … made it a crime to be homeless within [Santa Monica’s] borders and instituted a policy and practice of using its police officers to harass and intimidate homeless residents in order to force them to leave Santa Monica and relocate to nearby communities such as Venice, Malibu, and downtown Los Angeles.”
It went on to allege that City Hall had violated homeless individuals’ civil rights by “selectively and discriminatorily” citing homeless people for minor offenses like sitting, sleeping or smoking cigarettes in public while failing to provide adequate shelter and services to its homeless population.
In the settlement agreement, announced June 8, Santa Monica did not have to make a payment, admit to wrongdoing, or formally change a law or policy. As part of the deal, both sides signed off on a set of principles for effectively addressing homelessness and agreed to consider cooperating on litigation against other agencies or jurisdictions over access to homelessness services in the future.
When the settlement was announced, Rosenbaum said his organization agreed to dismiss the suit because it had already achieved its aim. Santa Monica officials countered that the terms of the settlement vindicated their position that the suit had been baseless.
By the numbers
Arrests by the SMPD for camping in public
from June, 2008 to May, 2010
Month, year / arrests
June, 2008 11
July, 2008 19
August, 2008 19
September, 2008 25
October, 2008 19
November, 2008 3
December, 2008 15
January, 2009 18
February, 2009 12
March, 2009 10
April, 2009 32
May, 2009 54
June, 2009 37
July, 2009 5
August, 2009 1
September, 2009 2
October, 2009 4
November, 2009 3
December, 2009 6
January, 2010 2
February, 2010 5
March, 2010 4
April, 2010 2
May, 2010 2
* Source: SMPD