Recently I drove a visiting family friend, a retired professor from New York City, through the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles. It was his first time. He simply couldn't believe the square miles of men and women camped on sidewalks, staggering in the streets or just hanging out. He had recently come back from a round-the-world trip and has visited a lot of places — his observation is that there's nothing like LA's Skid Row anywhere. That fresh eye on our city's enduring disgrace was in my mind when I read the op-ed piece by LAPD officer Deon Joseph, the senior lead officer for Skid Row, in this week's Downtown News. For three decades, at least, authorities and activists have agreed that the collision of the mentally ill, predators and illegal drugs on the streets of Central City East make for a massive and tragic societal fail. Joseph says that right now the streets of Skid Row, where he has worked for 16 years, are "in the throes of a mental health state of emergency."
"My fellow officers and I are keeping our fingers in the cracks of a dam to prevent it from breaking," he writes.
The police have been asked for years to be the answer to the issues stemming from mental illness in the communities we serve. We have done the best that we can. It is not the LAPD that has failed the mentally ill or the public. It is our society that has failed them. A society that has closed down hospitals. A system that is slow to create more housing-plus-care locations that would respect their autonomy and civil rights. A system that will not engage in proactive outreach.
I have had to arrest many mentally ill men and women who I knew and cared about after their illness drove them to harm someone. Though it was legal and in good faith, it was wrong. I put people in prison and jail who had needed help long before they committed their crimes. I could not stop them ahead of time because they did not say the magic words of “I want to kill myself” or “I want to hurt others.”
Recently we have seen an increase in the presence of said individuals in the Skid Row area. We are now at a state of urgency, as the streets of Skid Row have once again become an outdoor asylum without walls. On a daily basis we see the potential for violence against or committed by these individuals.
What we need most is the stepped-up assistance of professionals who deal with mental health to reach out to these individuals before they become victimized, threaten suicide, victimize others, or become so mentally unstable that they stop taking care of themselves. We have made several attempts to bring this to fruition, but our requests have been met with broken promises, or fear of how people would be perceived by the public for working with law enforcement.
We as a department are changing the way we do things for the safety of the community, and we are striving to develop stronger relationships with the people we serve. We need mental health agencies to do the same and join us. We have tried everything else. It is time to try something that may actually work if we give it a chance.
Joseph's efforts on Skid Row have been honored and featured in the media before. The Times did a nice audio photo gallery in 2011. This video interview below was posted earlier this year. His piece in the Downtown News sounds like a new level of urgency.
Downtown News photo by Gary Leonard.