How to Police the Homeless

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies across the country are many times handcuffed by the complexities of dealing with a transient—and often mentally ill—population. Fortunately, new ideas—as well as a few reliable old ones—are available to help.

The woman was 75 years old, with a heart condition and diabetes. Yet, she had somehow managed to intimidate Metro Transit patrons at a Los Angeles bus stop, and generate a five-hour visit from law enforcement. She was defending her living space from intruders. While her story eventually had a safe, hopeful ending, some other cases, in which law enforcement and homelessness collide, do not.

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies across the country are many times handcuffed by the complexities of dealing with a transient—and often mentally ill—population.

Fortunately, new ideas—as well as a few reliable old ones—are available to help.

The Challenge

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) Dep. Craig McClelland and Mental Health Counselor Suzanne Newberry responded to the bus stop call. The two comprise LASD’s Crisis Response Unit (CRU), one of many community policing teams the county has launched to combine law enforcement and mental health approaches in dealing with L.A.’s transient and mentally ill population.

On the East Coast, Manhattan’s Midtown district employs a similar approach with its Street Outreach Services (SOS), which partners NYPD officers with social workers to reach out to low-level offenders, many of whom are homeless. Their jurisdiction covers a densely populated area that stretches from 58th Street to 14th Street.

“Before, there really wasn’t much of a model to deal with this population,” says Sonia Rodriguez, the assistant clinical director at the court. “The officers would get a complaint, they’d go out, and a lot of times an arrest was made and the person would end up right where they were before.” SOS attempts to engage people before an arrest needs to be made, Rodriguez says.

Law enforcement officers in both cities gain new insight into the homeless through their partnerships.

“The social workers definitely give you a different view of what these people are dealing with,” says Sgt. Robert Quiery of Midtown’s north precinct. “And I have found that the homeless people are a lot more cooperative when we’re accompanied by the social workers as opposed to when we’re approaching them with another person in uniform.”

“I do very little arresting because we can usually diffuse a situation before it gets to that,” McClelland says. In the case of the bus stop lady, CRU used as much time as needed to assess the situation and negotiate its end. CRU was able to get the woman needed help and hospitalization.

But not every law enforcement officer shares CRU’s expertise or the luxury of its narrow focus.

“Field officers don’t get a lot of training at the academy regarding mental health issues,” Newberry says. “A lot of officers are very much following the letter of the law, while CRU and the other outreach teams look at the spirit of the law.”

For instance, in a different context the bus stop lady’s initial refusal to cooperate would have justified incarceration. Jail time would have protected the public from the lady’s aggressive behavior. But hospitalization seemed more appropriate, considering her age and her apparent mental and physical illness. In this context, it was important to protect the lady from herself, as well.

However, McClelland admits that some situations are harder to read.

“One thing that’s very complicated about dealing with the homeless is their unpredictability,” he says. “You can be cruising along, thinking everything’s okay with them, and suddenly everything changes rapidly.”

One need look no further than the Margaret Mitchell case for an example of what can go wrong. In 1999, LAPD bike patrol officers approached Mitchell, a 55-year-old homeless woman, in downtown L.A., suspecting she had stolen the shopping cart she had in tow. Minutes later, she had threatened the lives of both officers with a screwdriver and had been shot dead by one officer’s service pistol. The merits of what happened in between are hotly debated by law enforcement and homeless advocacy groups on the West Coast. But no one denies the tragedy.

An Ounce of Prevention

What is known is that some of these horrible episodes can be avoided with a combination of preparation and common sense. In an effort to help avert future tragedies, McClelland, Newberry, and other experts train law enforcement officers how to deal with homeless and mental health issues.

Personal Space

Linda Boyd is the mental health clinical program head for L.A. County’s Law Enforcement Mental Health Program, which oversees Newberry’s involvement in CRU. Boyd speaks to departments across the nation about dealing with the homeless and mentally ill. She considers personal space a critical component to any method of engagement with homeless individuals.

“With people who are homeless, you’ll probably see a higher incidence of paranoia because they’re so scared someone’s trying to hurt them,” Boyd says. “So in my training sessions, I’ll walk up to a civilian and say, ‘Stop me when I get into your personal space.’ I can usually get close enough to hug them. But when I do the same exercise with police officers, they’ll stop me about halfway across from them and say that’s enough. Well, people with paranoia need at least double that distance.”

Says Query, “About at least 20 feet is what we maintain when we approach them.”

In cases where it’s absolutely necessary to get closer, Newberry has a personal rule of thumb to protect herself. “I don’t get within a leg’s length of anyone, unless I know them and am comfortable with them,” she says.

Setting the Stage

Homeless people are constantly evaluating the intentions of the people they encounter. Law enforcement officers can start diffusing a potentially bad situation the minute they arrive, and sometimes even well in advance.

“When a law enforcement officer goes up to a homeless person for the first time, there’s an adversarial relationship before a word is spoken,” McClelland says. “The homeless person knows if law enforcement is there, something must be wrong. And they’re thinking, ‘Are they going to arrest me?’”

Quiery says it’s important to arrive with an open mind and to be prepared to listen. “Don’t predetermine in your head what the situation is,” he says. “A lot of these people are well-spoken and with their wits about them. Just because they’re homeless doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.”

It’s also important to maintain a balance between showing concern and showing authority when dealing with homeless people, advises Newberry.

“Stand in a non-threatening way, where you don’t look like you’re about to shoot them,” Newberry says. “You have to stand in a way where they know that you’re not afraid of them, but also where they’re not afraid of you.” While peace is the objective, officers should be on the lookout for potential dangers. “You should make sure they keep their hands out of their pockets,” Quiery says.

Outreach groups such as CRU and SOS have a unique opportunity to set a peaceful stage for future encounters, as the focus of their work allows them to build a rapport with the homeless. CRU carries food, water, and clothing to its constituents, in a vehicle that can also be used for transportation to a shelter.

“Sue and I came up with a system where we would just go up to these people and offer help,” McClelland says. “We tried to show concern for their problems and, in doing so, we established trust.”

Meanwhile, SOS’s connection to Midtown Community Court has also taken the edge off of many of its outreach encounters. “Where before they may have expected to be arrested, people now realize that, ‘Hey, these people are trying to help me,’” Rodriguez says.

Getting Information

The good news is that homeless people can be helpful witnesses. “Since they’re out on the streets a lot, they’re aware of their surroundings, and a lot of times their information is good,” Quiery says. “Because they’re surviving out there, they know who to look for, who the bad guys are.”

Now for the bad news. Since many homeless people are mentally ill, getting a statement can be difficult. Officers may have to compete with a witness’ inner demons before straight answers are available.

“If the person is hearing voices, that is a fixed, false belief,” Boyd says. “Don’t argue with it because it’ll do you no good. They’re processing your voice with all the voices in their head and it’s confusing for them.”

Newberry agrees. “Make sure they’re looking at you when you’re talking to them.” “They may be hearing those voices and not listening to you.”

To help officers understand the impact of these voices, Newberry and McClelland share an exercise during their training sessions.

“We’ll pick somebody out of the audience at random, and they’ll leave the room temporarily,” Newberry says. “When they return, we’ve prepped the audience, and Craig says, ‘I want you to try to listen to what I’m saying, but in one ear there will be the Devil, and in the other a seductress.’”

The audience then overwhelms the volunteer with distracting information, Newberry says. “It’s really hard for them to concentrate, so you can imagine what it’s like for someone who is mentally ill.”

Quiery knows that dealing with a transient population makes communication even more difficult. “Once homeless people do give you information, you obviously have to consider that you may not be able to get that info from them again,” he says. “They move around, and you don’t know when you might see them again, so you really need to get what they know right there and then.”

It’s also important to know how to get information from homeless people about themselves. In particular, are they mentally ill? The answer to this question can save time and the trouble that comes from misinterpreting a person’s behavior.

Here are a few considerations:

Is this person connecting thoughts and communicating in a normal way?

Does the person carry on one-sided conversations?

Do the person’s eyes dart back and forth as if he or she hears or sees imaginary people?

Sometimes simple, direct questions can uncover clues.

“You can just ask them things like, ‘Do you take any medication?’” McClelland says. “You just want to find out the reason they’re acting a certain way.”

What Are My Options?

Trying to adhere to the spirit of the law can be a tricky business, but guidelines do exist. In most cities, the law allows for officers to order help for homeless people who are unable to help themselves. In L.A., 5150 is the code name for cases that meet this standard. Homeless people can be compelled into treatment if they meet one of the following criteria:

A danger to oneself

A danger to others

Gravely disabled

Applying 5150-type provisions often requires a mix of creativity and old-fashioned investigative work. In dealing with the elderly woman at the bus stop, McClelland and Newberry had their work cut out for them.

“My first concern was her medical condition,” McClelland says. “Would it give us the criteria needed to hospitalize her? Although she admitted to a heart condition, she said she was taking medication. And she had a leg infection, but that didn’t appear to be life-threatening.”

So he and Newberry began asking others about the lady, eventually contacting another deputy who had spoken to her that morning. When they learned that the lady had been clenching her fists and threatening people who came near her, they had what they needed.

“That threat and her apparent mental illness were enough for a 5150,” McClelland says.

“The criteria for 5150 are a lot broader than many officers think,” Newberry says.

In New York, if a homeless person stays in the same place during 32-degree-or-below weather, officers are able to relocate the person to a shelter. This interpretation relies on the reasonable assumption that the person is in imminent danger of freezing to death.

While 5150 and its counterparts provide benevolent options, sometimes a more adversarial role is unavoidable.

When Diplomacy Fails

As stated earlier, homeless people can be unpredictable due to mental illness and their learned survival instincts. In these instances, deadly force can still be avoided.

McClelland and Newberry recall a volatile incident involving yet another elderly homeless woman on a bus bench. CRU made a routine visit to her hangout.

“We had approached her in plain clothes, offered to place her in a shelter and she said, ‘No,’” McClelland says. “So we kept in touch with her, and one night we had to ask her nicely to move from the bus bench.”

That’s when things got ugly. After hurling verbal insults at CRU, the lady walked back to her shopping cart and reached inside. Sensing danger, McClelland created space between himself and the woman.

“She took a metal rod out of her cart and began swinging it at us,” Newberry says. It was a collision between the letter and the spirit of the law. “Craig had the authority to use deadly force, but we backed off and called for help. Eventually we subdued her, and she was safe, and we were safe without having to hurt her.”

When things go awry, remember these tips:

Create space. Remove yourself from harm’s way.

Call for backup. Call emergency services officers who have the necessary equipment to contain someone.

Isolate and contain the person. Remove any person who isn’t involved in the situation.

I Didn’t Sign Up for This

From a law enforcement perspective, the nightly ritual of dealing with sleepy transients in business doorways and public benches can be a troublesome speed bump on the way to fighting more serious crimes. After all, social work isn’t a major goal of most law enforcement officers. Public safety is.

Although the benefits are less visible, a little preparation for these challenging encounters can pay big dividends.

Says Boyd: “The more we can help law enforcement understand and prepare for homeless people, the safer everyone is. It’s a win-win situation.”

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