Local policing challenges extend beyond homelessness

Daily Press Editor

In the past year, Santa Monica has seen an increase in crime and a rise in its homeless population but according to figures from the Santa Monica Police department, crimes involving homeless individuals have not grown at the same pace as either standalone statistic.

In the first nine months of this year, SMPD responded to 98,421 calls for service and 20 percent (19,807) were related to homelessness. The department made 2,337 arrests and 62 percent (1,448) were reported as homeless.

For the same timeframe in both 2016 and 2015 about 17 percent of the department’s calls were related to homelessness and 59 percent of all arrests were homeless individuals. 2,399 individuals were arrest in the first nine months of 2016 (1,426 of them homeless) and police responded to 98,356 calls (16,512 related to homelessness).

For that time in 2015, 2,384 people were arrested (1,417 of them homeless) and officers responded to 101,292 calls (16,811 related to homelessness).

The three percent increase in homeless related calls/arrests this year comes after the city saw an increase in crime citywide but particularly in the Downtown area.

According to SMPD Part 1 crimes (including murder, arson, burglary, assault, and grand theft auto) increased 5.5 percent in the city, to a total of 4,515 incidents in 2016. Nearly 90 percent of those incidents are property related and the City’s downtown business area reported the most concentrated problem accounting for 40 percent of all Part One crimes in 2016.

Homeless has also increased throughout the region in 2016. Santa Monica reported a 23 percent increase in its homeless population while Los Angeles County reported an increase of 26 percent.

SMPD said it is aware of the changing situation but the status of someone’s living situation isn’t their concern unless they actually commit a crime.

Lt. Saul Rodriguez said homelessness is not a crime and the department has to respect the rights of individuals, homeless or not, to use public space.

“The assumption is just because they are homeless we can do something about it,” he said. “If they are not bothering anybody we really can’t’ just remove them from the streets.

Homelessness isn’t just a problem in Santa Monica,
s a regional, countrywide problem. We’re dealing with a societal issue. Can we solve it as a police department? No.”
However, he said officers will pursue criminal behavior regardless of where someone lives and the department is aware of the growing community concern about quality of life issues and property crimes.

“We know that and are trying to address that,” he said. “It gets discussed on a regular basis on how to address that.”
Those discussions include more education for patrol officers regarding community concerns, changes in patrol patterns and continued effort to utilize police resources in a way that can help people get off the streets without violating their civil rights or running afoul of the court system.

“We are definitely revamping how we do stuff, meaning we’re being more aggressive not only in outreach but identify people who may be out there on a frequent basis, what we can do to get them off the streets, find their way home or if they commit a crime get them off the streets,” he said. “Our emphasis has changed to make this a number one priority. The community is getting very concerned about where this is leading.”

Those efforts are not without their own challenges such as a perpetual to find enough qualified officers to fill its ranks.
SMPD is frequently unable to reach it’s budgeted staffing level and Rodriguez said their problem is twofold: there’s a constant cycle of departures and the department requires high standards for potential employees.

He said the department is starting from a position of unfilled vacancies and at the same time, they have to contend with individuals retiring, transferring or facing injury leave.

“It’s been a concern regionally for some time, there a lot of retirements, a lot of people leave,” he said. “We have a lot of new officers, we’ve been hiring a lot and we continue to do that. There’s a cadre of officers who do nothing but recruit and try to hire.”

However, he said SMPD won’t implement mass hiring practices that waive the departments stringent requirements.
“When you lower your standards, you can get into severe issues, people can get into bad situations with controversy over use of force or violence,” he said. “You have to have high caliber individuals and we are trying to get there.”

He said there’s also anecdotal evidence that changes to State law have done more to boost crime rates than the increase in homelessness.

In the past few years Californians voted to reclassify some drug felonies as misdemeanors and mandated misdemeanor sentencing options for a variety of crimes like theft, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, and fraud if the amounts are less than $950.

The states incarceration system was also altered to move more prisoners out of State control and into local jurisdictions.

Even if SMPD makes an arrest, they are sometimes unable to hold that individual.

If a prisoner has a medical need or if they need to be held for an extended period of time, SMPD is required to transport the individual to the County facility.

However, County jails are still overcrowded and will refuse to hold an individual if their bail is less than $25,000.

As a result, some level criminals spend less, if any, time in jail. Rodriguez said while those kinds of criminals used to be off the streets for a while after an arrest they now can return to their old habits almost immediately.

He said the lack of serious penalties also makes it harder to convince addicts to seek treatment because they know they will be released quickly and that kind of criminal is driven to return to crime to feed their habits.

“Before, they could be off the street for months but now they get a ticket or spend a night in jail,” he said.

“They have the ability to commit additional crimes, homeless or not homeless, whoever they may be criminals know they are not going to go to jail for a long period of time.”