Final Version

Coalition on Homelessness (coh@sfo.com)
Mon, 21 Jun 1999 20:13:34 -0800


Thanks for all the great feedback.   This is (I swear) the final edit.

Peace,
ch@nce

Looking at America Through "Broken Windows"

Lewis Rivera, 40, was standing in front of a downtown business in Miami
on May 12th when several police officers were dispatched to remove him.
They pepper-sprayed and shackled the unarmed homeless man, who died 40
minutes later.  No drugs and about one-half beer's worth of alcohol were
in his body at the time of his death.

Clarence Dorsey, a 31 year-old homeless sufferer of schizophrenia, was
pepper-sprayed the afternoon of June 8th when he was discovered
rummaging through a dumpster behind the Fremont jail.  After detainment
and release he made his way to Oakland, called his family, and was en
route to their home when he was confronted by an Alameda county deputy.
Claiming the unarmed Dorsey made a "threatening movement", the deputy
fired, and Clarence would never again enjoy dinner with his family.

Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a 54 year-old woman with a history of mental
illness, was stopped May 21st on La Brea Ave. by two LAPD bicycle
officers demanding to know if the shopping cart filled with all of her
worldly possessions was stolen.  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 Margaret found release
from the shambles of her life.

On May 26th, a San Antonio jury awarded a Downtown Foot and Bicycle
Patrolman $500,000.  They determined his department retaliated against
him for protesting illegal searches and seizures and other heavy-handed
tactics demanded of the 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 serious
crimes.  Promotions on San Antonio's bike patrol were shown to be based
on each officer's total 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."

Unfortunately, the San Antonio lawsuit is exceptional, which leaves us
questioning how many homeless people are still having their civil rights
trampled in San Antonio, as in cities across these United States.  Maybe
if homeless and mentally ill 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 could just
enjoy their right to live.

For Lewis, Clarence and Margaret, such debates no longer matter.

That doesn't mean newspapers won't continue to generate countless
stories about them, or that lawyers and politicians and advocates of
every stripe won't line up to alternately condemn and defend them and
their executioners.  But the next time some homeless person's lifetime
of rotten luck plays out 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 are legion.

San Francisco has its own litany of names: homeless and mentally ill
people who died at the hands of our police.  February 3rd, 1997, 30
year-old Robert Greer fell to his death at the Powell St. BART station
while being "escorted" up the escalator by the two BART police who had
rousted him from his sleep.  No drugs or alcohol were present to explain
away his "accidental" fall.  And there's Solano Sivano, a 47 year-old
homeless man who died in a hail of police gunfire on November 9th, 1997
-- just months after unsuccessfully seeking help from five different
mental health providers.  Or Hue Trong, 38, who made the fatal error of
waving a pocket knife at an SFPD officer on August 3, 1997.  The Medical
Examiner's official euphemism for this was "homicide by legal
intervention".  It sounds like a contradiction in terms.

As these names finally fade from our memory, what also becomes obscured
is a shocking epidemic of needless, senseless, preventable deaths.  And
as the 'broken windows' theory of law-enforcement gains popularity all
across this country, the body count climbs.

After years of cuts to mental health funding throughout California, now
the San Francisco Police Department is incredibly thrust into the role
of providing front-line intervention for homeless people in psychiatric
crisis.  Police officers in California receive an average four and
one-half hours of training in mental health issues, or only about
one-sixteenth of the training local mental health consumers undergo to
become volunteer peer counselors.  When compared to the amount of
ongoing training every police department receives in the use of force
and weapons it becomes clear that the fortunate are those who are merely
incarcerated.

That's why the Coalition on Homelessness, in collaboration with other
concerned community agencies, continues its fight to implement 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.  Police brass claim
to support this plan, but despite a record $4.5 million budget they
can't seem to locate the needed dollars.  Now we are seeking funding for
this vital, life-saving training from the City's General Fund.

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

Every society's greatness is found in its treatment of its weakest
members.  How many more lives must be needlessly lost before our police,
our business community and our policy makers will look upon the most
destitute members of our human family and recognize broken and suffering
people, instead of "broken windows"?