Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When Police Attack?

California Has an Issue with Rogue Police

There were two recent attacks by law enforcement officers on those experiencing homelessness in California.  All this is happening on the heals of another Governor of California vetoing adding homeless people to the hate crimes law.  In Fullerton California, a homeless man with a mental disability was beaten to death by police in early July 2011, and there has sprung up a series of protests and City Council inquiries into the death.  There were allegations that the police were injured in the encounter, this turned out to be incorrect.  The homeless man, Kelly Thomas, was hit with a stun gun in the encounter with the police, but that was not reported in the first release of information.  The officers are currently on paid administrative leave while the case is being investigated, which caused more anger at the August 18 City Council meeting.  

The other incident involved the Bay Area Transit Police on July 3 in which a homeless man, Charles Hill, was shot and killed. Much of the attention involving the case has been on the BART police shutting cell phone service in the hopes of shutting down a protest that were planned for August 2011.  But the protest was over the death a man who was reportedly drunk and carrying a knife and then shot by BART police.  San Francisco advocates are upset that a drunk man could not be restrained without using lethal force.  The video seems to show that the officer was not very close to the man, and did not seem to be in any danger. 

Both these incidents demonstrate that police are in the difficult position because they have to deal with individuals in our society that other institutions have cast aside.  Both our alcohol and drug system as well as our mental health system are allowing too many people to live without a home, and then the disabled often end up being housed in jail.  The other issue that is obvious is that police forces need better training for dealing with fragile populations such as the mentally ill or drug addicted.  Since society has dumped this responsibility on police to deal with homeless and disabled individuals, they should have extensive training on the interaction with homeless people.  Every police force should have officers assigned to be liaisons to the homeless social service providers to head off problems before they get out of control.  And, finally, I believe that California and every state needs to pass a hate crimes protection bill for homeless people.  We know from the National Coalition's report that homeless people are routinely targeted especially by young people.  I have to believe that if police are killing homeless people with little consequences that will set a tone in the community.  I fear that more young people will feel that society accepts some casualties within the homeless population, and will step up attacks on fragile and vulnerable individuals without a secure place to rest their head at night.

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