The Truth About Policing and Skid Row
Summer 2009 proved that poor people’s best friend is the LAPD, not homeless advocates.
By Heather Mac Donald
28 September 2009
The homeless industry on Los Angeles’s Skid Row lost its final shred of legitimacy this summer. Three murders and their aftermath exposed the advocates’ opposition to assertive policing as dangerous, hypocritical posturing. Los Angeles officials should reorient their funding priorities in light of the lessons of the summer of 2009.
For 25 years, Skid Row constituted a real-world experiment in the application of homeless-advocate ideology. The squalor that engulfed the 50-block district just east of downtown Los Angeles was the direct outgrowth of advocates’ claims that the homeless should be exempt from the rules of ordinary society. The result was not a reign of peace and love among society’s underdogs, but rather brutal predation and depravity. Occupants of the filthy tents and lean-tos that covered every inch of sidewalk in the area pimped each other out and stole from, stabbed, and occasionally killed one another. Gangs and pushers from South Central and East Los Angeles operated with impunity under cover of the chaos that reigned on the streets.
The intrepid small wholesalers and warehouse owners who tried to keep the area’s once vigorous commercial trade alive removed feces, condoms, and hypodermic needles from the entrance to their properties every morning. Elderly residents of the local Single Room Occupancy hotels were imprisoned in their tiny apartments, terrified to go outside.
In 2006, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton announced a full-scale attack on Skid Row anarchy. His Safer City Initiative (SCI) would be a demonstration project, he said, for Broken Windows theory, which holds that tolerance for low-level forms of crime and disorder allows more serious crime to fester. When the police started enforcing jaywalking, public urination, and public camping laws, thousands of warrant absconders and violent parolees on the lam lost their refuge. Order gradually returned to the streets.
The homeless themselves were the Safer City Initiative’s most immediate beneficiaries. As the lawlessness in the encampments was pushed back, deaths from drug overdoses, untreated disease, and other non-homicidal causes of mortality diminished as well, falling 36 percent in just three years. Skid Row’s violent crime—the victims of which were almost always other vagrants—decreased 45 percent from the first nine months of 2006, before SCI began, to the first nine months of 2009. The lean-tos faded away as their inhabitants discovered that they could no longer smoke weed and crack in them all day without disturbance.
Skid Row’s radical social-service providers and public-housing advocates declared war on the Safer City Initiative. They directed a nonstop barrage of propaganda and lawsuits against the LAPD, claiming that its officers were abusing the poor on behalf of would-be gentrifiers. One of the most vocal critics was Casey Horan, executive director of Lamp Community and a highly public presence in Skid Row politics. Lamp is a subsidized housing provider that counsels its mentally ill clients to use drugs “safely”—an approach to drug treatment known as “harm reduction”—rather than requiring abstinence from drugs as a condition of residency. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez has championed Horan, giving Lamp a prominent and always virtuous role in his book and subsequent movie about Skid Row, The Soloist.
Horan calls the Safer City Initiative a “discriminatory . . . initiative targeting poor, homeless and disabled people” that has “infringed on the civil and human rights of the predominantly black downtown community” (these statements appear on Lamp’s website). In an ACLU lawsuit against the LAPD, Horan claimed that “aggressive policing” was causing “fear and stress” among the Skid Row population that “add[ed] significantly to their issues.” SCI has had “no affect [sic] on violent crime” on Skid Row, Lamp alleges, a statement contradicted by crime statistics. At the same time, however, Lamp’s website dismisses the problem of “serious or violent crime” on Skid Row, saying that crime rates there are “relatively low.”
Given Horan’s long record of opposition to assertive policing, jaws dropped all over Skid Row on the morning of August 12, 2009, when the Los Angeles Times quoted Horan criticizing the LAPD for not fighting lawless behavior aggressively enough. Horan’s about-face came in a Times exposé of the reckless mismanagement at Lamp that had led to a double murder in April. Horan’s desperate effort to deflect responsibility for the violence in her own facility contradicted everything she had ever said against the Safer City Initiative and blew apart the advocates’ longstanding opposition to proactive policing.
At around 5 am on April 12 (Easter Sunday), a drug dealer and an associate were gunned down while watching TV in a Lamp residence. The events leading up to that double murder, described in an affidavit from an LAPD homicide detective, provide a breathtaking glance into the criminal mindset, above all, into its inability to defer gratification or to place long-term consequences ahead of short-term gain. The Lodge, one of several facilities for mentally ill addicts that Lamp operated on Skid Row, was a veritable drug bazaar. Inglewood-based dealer Lamont Ward, known exclusively as “Q,” directed the largest portion of the drug trade there through a network of intermediaries that included the Lodge’s night manager. Residents sold Q’s wares from their apartments or rented their apartments to outside dealers in exchange for drugs (the sublessors would then sleep in the streets, according to an employee). The Lamp philosophy of tolerating residents’ drug use creates a de facto sanctuary zone in the residents’ apartments; not surprisingly, drug-dealing rapidly colonizes that sanctuary zone. Q himself set up shop just outside the Lodge next to a flower planter. Near Q’s drug post, a Lamp resident conducted a brisk beer trade from his car trunk; the attendant bustle undoubtedly helped Q’s drug sales escape undue police notice.
Rival dealer Tommy Hayes challenged Q’s empire at the Lodge. Hayes used many of Q’s resident dealers for his own agents and hung out at the Lodge night and day, ordering pizza with his clients. Apparently no Lamp managers objected to his presence there, just as they never seemed to be disturbed by the other dealers doing a lucrative business from residents’ apartments.
When the Cadillac-driving Q tried to extort Hayes for a portion of his earnings, Hayes threatened to take Q out. Hayes announced: “F—k Q. He doesn’t tell me what to do. This is my spot. I can have motherf—kers shut down this place and shoot the place up,” as a resident later told the police. Q decided to act first. “Baby Girl,” a single mother of four who sold Q’s drugs at Lamp with her girlfriend, put Q in contact with “Speedy,” her “home-boy.” Speedy, a member of a cop-killing gang which operates from the Hollenbeck area in Los Angeles, agreed via cell-phone at 3 am on April 12 to do a hit on Hayes. Speedy put less forethought into the decision than most people expend on the choice of a Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte or a low-fat Java Chip Frappuccino. Speedy (a.k.a. Richard Luna) lived up to his moniker. Barely two hours after receiving his assignment, he had fatally shot Hayes and an unintended second man in the Lodge’s TV room.
Speedy may be fast, but that doesn’t mean that he has no standards. He aborted his first approach to the Lodge when he saw that too many sundry dealers and residents were milling around the common area for him to do his job right. (This lively social scene was taking place at around 4:30 am, in a facility that is supposed to provide shelter for a vulnerable mentally ill population.) Speedy returned, seething, to Baby Girl’s car (Baby Girl having driven him to the Lodge). Everything was “f—ked up,” he said, banging the car’s dashboard. Speedy wanted out and wanted his money, now. Baby Girl (a.k.a. Shanana Flores) called Q back to convey Speedy’s frustration. Q, realizing that he had a perfectionist on his hands, hurried over to the Lodge himself, shooing the residents into their rooms and his dealers off-site: “Get your s—t out of here,” he announced. “S—t about to go down. It ain’t gonna be cool. This will be twisted. Motherf—kers won’t know where this is coming.” Q and the Lamp night manager turned off the security cameras, then Q called Baby Girl to announce that everything was ready to go. Speedy walked back to the Lodge, wearing gloves and a black hooded jacket, and five minutes later sauntered back to Baby Girl’s car, the job completed.
Speedy might with equal propriety be called Dopey, however. He had agreed to commit murder with nothing more than Q’s assurance that he would find $4,000 to $5,000 in drugs and cash on Hayes’s person. Yet the Lodge’s dealers and residents had already ransacked Hayes’ corpse by the time Speedy went to harvest the booty. “There was nothing. F—k that,” he told Baby Girl angrily when he got back into her car the second time. Speedy’s efforts to collect his payment would prove forever unavailing; all that he ever received from Q was $700 in small bills. Struck by the injustice of it all, he pressed Baby Girl for his payment over the phone the following month from the Los Angeles County Jail, where he was being held on an unrelated charge. Speedy showed a charming but unwarranted trust in the correction system’s respect for his privacy. That call and other bugged jail conversations provided the police with further evidence against him in the murder case.
Q was arrested on July 1 at the guard house of the exclusive residential community where he worked as a security guard and charged with two counts of murder. Speedy and Baby Girl have also been charged with murder.
Casey Horan denied almost everything in the Los Angeles Times’s August 12 exposé. She denied that there was any dealing going on in the Lodge and claimed as well that no one had ever reported drug sales activity to her or to her staff. Her first assertion is preposterous, given the numerous witnesses who have given statements to the police describing the pervasive trafficking at the site. Her second claim is incredible as well. I spoke with several people associated with the Lodge who say that residents had told staff about the dealing, to no avail. Given that a night manager was a partner of Q’s, it’s hardly surprising that staff might not have responded with alacrity to allegations of drug dealing. But even if the non-criminal residents had been too cowed to report the dealers’ occupation of the building, any conscientious management of a rehab facility would have noticed the many tell-tale signs of trafficking.
Horan’s denial that the Lodge sheltered a busy drug trade was childish but hardly surprising. Her explanation for how the murders could have happened in her facility, however, was nothing short of stunning. She had the gall to blame the police for the murders—because they weren’t policing aggressively enough on Skid Row, she said! “It was really the Wild West out there,” Horan sniffed. “We were aware that this is bleeding through our doors.” The “LAPD did not adequately police the area immediately outside the Lodge,” the Times paraphrased her as saying, “despite numerous calls Lamp made to them about crime there.”
Recall: This is the woman whose website dismisses the Safer City Initiative as unnecessary and labels it a “discriminatory . . . targeting [of] poor, homeless and disabled people.” Horan has endlessly sought to discredit the police tactics that could have forestalled the Hayes double murder—stopping and questioning people for minor violations of the law, such as the beer sales outside the Lodge, and arresting people for drug possession. No less an authority than Q has unwittingly testified to the efficacy of such broken-windows policing. Pressed by Speedy to cough up his blood money, Q told Baby Girl that he couldn’t sell drugs on Skid Row to raise the necessary funds. “If I went down there and got stopped then I’m really f—ked,” he explained. When a killer shuns a neighborhood because he figures that there is a good chance that he will be stopped, you know that the police are doing their job. Long before the Easter murders, SCI officers had noticed that misdemeanor enforcement had driven away many Skid Row dealers, since they could no longer spend all day littering and jaywalking while waiting for sales.
LAPD officers who work on Skid Row cannot recall Horan or her staff ever asking for more enforcement. Nor have Lamp officials participated in the community meetings that the LAPD constantly organizes to bring together Skid Row social-service providers, business owners, and residents. Contrary to Horan’s assertions, the police constantly made arrests around the Lodge, but the disorder surrounding and spilling out from the facility was endless. Horan did not respond to a request for an interview about her efforts to increase police activity around the Lodge.
Horan’s effort to shift the blame for the lawless chaos at the Lodge to the police was not just cowardly and hypocritical; it also undercuts the entire homeless-advocate world view. Confronted with an outbreak of lethal violence in her own facility, she did not interpret it as an indictment of society’s failure to spend enough on welfare and public housing—which is the mandatory advocate line—but as a break-down of law and order, for which the solution is tougher policing. Whether her response was blindly defensive or whether it shows that even Casey Horan possesses a hidden appreciation of the truth does not matter. She is now on record explaining crime as a problem of law enforcement, not economic inequality, and calling for more policing in response.
And Horan is right, of course. The double murder was a law-enforcement failure, not just on the part of the police, but even more so on the part of Lamp management. The problem was not just that it was the “Wild West” on the streets, as Horan charges, but that it was the “Wild West” inside the Lodge. Horan thinks she is exonerating herself when she states: “We were aware that [street problems were] bleeding through our doors.” She is only damning herself further, however. If Lamp management was aware of such problems, it should have eradicated them root and branch. Institutions need to show the same intolerance for disorder inside their walls as the police show out on the streets.
Casey Horan’s inadvertent affirmation of the need for assertive policing was the summer’s second serious blow against the left-wing anti-cop machine. The first occurred three weeks earlier, when a Skid Row stop for drinking in public led to the arrest of a depraved murderer less than 24 hours after his crime. On July 25, two mounted officers accosted Charles Samuel for drinking a beer on the street. When the 50-year-old Samuel told the officers that he was a parolee, they searched him, as is their right under the law, and discovered crack in his pocket. They arrested him for possession. Further investigation turned up physical evidence strongly suggesting that Samuel was responsible for abducting a 17-year-old girl the previous day and slashing her throat after she was unable to withdraw cash from an ATM machine. He left his victim to die in her own car in a Skid Row parking lot.
The Samuel arrest had already demonstrated beyond any possible cavil the value of broken- windows policing in high-crime areas. Had the police not stopped Samuel on the open container charge, he might still be on the loose. Add the lethal consequences of Lamp’s lax attitude towards criminal behavior and Horan’s sudden rebirth as a law-and-order advocate, and you have a comprehensive refutation of the homeless advocates’ attack on law enforcement. The Safer City Initiative has done more to protect the truly vulnerable from abuse than a thousand Casey Horans and ACLU lawyers ever have. Los Angeles’s leaders could spread the proven benefits of the Initiative more widely by redirecting taxpayer funds to the perpetually under-staffed police and to social-service providers who advocate respect for the law. In the meantime, supporters of public safety for the poor as well as the wealthy can celebrate this summer’s affirmation of the value of assertive, compassionate policing.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.