This is my life...again

Coalition on Homelessness (
Sat, 19 Jun 1999 22:10:46 -0800

Lewis Rivera, 40, was homeless and standing in front of a downtown business
in Miami last month when several police officers were sent to remove him.
The officers pepper-sprayed and shackled the unarmed man, who died 40
minutes later. There were no drugs and only about one-half beer's worth of
alcohol in his body at the time of his death.

Clarence Dorsey, a 31 year-old homeless sufferer of schizophrenia, was
still recovering from a blast of pepper spray he received the afternoon of
June 8th after he was discovered rummaging through a dumpster near the jail
in Fremont. When released he made his way to Oakland, called his family,
and was on his way to their home when he encountered an Alameda county
deputy. Claiming the unarmed Dorsey made a "threatening movement", the
deputy fired, and Clarence would never enjoy dinner with his folks again.

Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a 54 year-old woman with a history of mental
illness, was stopped on La Brea Ave. by two LAPD bicycle officers trying to
determine if the shopping cart filled with all of her worldly possessions
was stolen. When the 5'1", 102 pound grandmother responded by waving a
screwdriver at one of the officers from a distance of seven feet, he shot
her once in the chest, and she found release from the shambles of her life.

On May 26th, a San Antonio jury awarded a police officer $500,000 because
his department retaliated against him for protesting the illegal searches
and seizures and other heavy-handed tactics demanded of the Downtown Foot
and Bicycle Patrol by their Captain, who proselytized the popular "broken
windows" theory of law enforcement. This theory hinges on the premise that
if minor infractions -- such as panhandling or public inebriation -- are
left unchecked, they will escalate to more serious crime. Promotions on San
Antonio's bike patrol were shown to determined on the basis of each
officer's tallies of reports and arrests of homeless people in the business
district. The verdict prompted a criminal justice professor at the
University of Texas to comment, "It's easy for officers to go from
reasonable enforcement of laws to overly aggressive if they perceive that
is what is wanted."

An anonymous juror put it more bluntly: "That 'broken window' theory, they
should apply that internally. They ended up with a wall of broken windows
here, and they didn't fix it."

While the San Antonio lawsuit might be interpreted as a positive sign,
we're still left wondering about all the homeless people who are still
having their civil rights trampled in San Antonio, just as they are
trampled in cities all across these United States. Maybe if homeless
Americans had influential and powerful unions and the legal resources that
any police department enjoys, they might be better served by the mechanisms
of justice. Or they might just live longer.

For Lewis, Clarence and Margaret, this debate no longer matters.

That doesn't mean that the papers won't continue to generate countless
column inches of stories about them, or that lawyers and politicians and
advocates of every stripe won't stand in line to alternately condemn and
defend them and their executioners. But the next time some poor homeless
person's lifetime of bad luck ends abruptly at the hands of some police
officer eager to step up the department ladder, their names will become
lost to all but their families. The names of the lost have become legion.

San Francisco has its own legacy of homeless mentally ill people dying at
the hands of the police. The Medical Examiner's official euphemism for this
is "homicide by legal intervention", which sounds like a contradiction in
terms, if not an outright oxymoron. After years of cuts to mental health
services in San Francisco, and refusal on the part of our current Mayor and
Director of Public Health to recognize the desperate need for outreach to
our mentally ill homeless citizens, the police have been unbelievably
thrust into the role of providing front-line intervention for people in
psychiatric crisis.

The average police officer in California typically receives only an average
of four and one-half hours of training in mental health issues, or about
one-sixteenth of the training a mental health consumer must undergo to
become a volunteer peer counselor. In these circumstances, it is the
fortunate who are merely incarcerated.

This is why the Coalition on Homelessness, in collaboration with a broad
spectrum of community organizations, continues its struggle with the City
to fund crisis intervention training for the SFPD. This plan would place an
officer at each station on each shift who has been trained in mental health
issues and de-escalation techniques. The cost of providing this police
crisis intervention training has been budgeted at $200,000. The SFPD,
despite a record $4.5 million budget, can't seem to find these vitally
needed dollars in their own funding, so we are now seeking the money for
this life-saving training from the general fund.

When the only tool you possess is a hammer, all problems resemble nails.
When police officers are trained and encouraged to harass homeless people
for pushing a shopping cart, or standing on a median strip, or panhandling,
or drinking in public on the premise that these infractions lead to more
serious crime, then all homeless people begin look like criminals before
the fact. Since the only tools the police have to use on these presupposed
criminals are force and control, people in crisis wind up dead.

The measure of any society is found in how it treats its weakest members.
How many more people must die needlessly before police, business owners and
policymakers can look at the poorest and most vulnerable members of our
human family and recognize a broken person, instead of a 'broken window'?

ch@nce martin