Rash of attacks committed by mentally ill homeless raise questions about public safety

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Is the increasing level of homelessness a significant public safety problem? The answer, in a nutshell, is both yes and no. 

A number of recent encounters has generated a great deal of discussion and debate.

In Orange County, a high school cross-country runner recently was attacked by a homeless woman who tried to push him over a bridge onto the highway below. It was only through the efforts of his teammates that they were able to restrain the suspect until police arrived.

#OCSDPIO At approximately 4pm yesterday, deputies responded to the area of Crown Valley Parkway between O'Neill and…

Posted by Orange County Sheriff's Department, CA on Saturday, August 24, 2019

In San Francisco, a woman entering her condominium was attacked by a disturbed homeless man. She escaped with the help of a security guard. A judge released the suspect from jail the next day. Outraged, the woman tweeted the surveillance footage and demanded that local politicians do something about the problem.

Even pets aren’t safe. In Port Hueneme, a homeless person kicked a stranger’s small dog 15 feet into the air, causing significant injuries. The suspect was arrested after fighting with lifeguards and police officers.

ORMOND BEACH TRANSIENT ARRESTED FOR FELONY ANIMAL CRUELTY BY PORT HUENEME POLICEOn Friday, August 9th, at…

Posted by Port Hueneme Police Department on Monday, August 12, 2019

Attacks also can result in serious injuries. In Burbank, a homeless man critically injured a senior citizen in an apparent random attack in the middle of a workday by her office building.

And we can’t forget that just over a year ago, in Ventura, a man was having dinner with his 5-year-old daughter on his lap when a schizophrenic homeless man attacked and killed him with a knife. The suspect frequented the area and was known to police and businesses.

 

For the most part, there is nothing to fear from the homeless guy panhandling on the street corner or the guy who just set up his tent alongside the freeway offramp. But the fact is there are a significant number of homeless that are suffering from various degrees of drug addiction and mental illness.

More often than not, the homeless themselves are victimized by other homeless people. Rape, robbery and murder amongst the homeless are common.

Do you have to fear the homeless? Statistically, probably not, but the reality is the state of fear created by the presence of homeless in our communities is real. Who hasn’t faced an aggressive panhandler or had to deal with the mentally ill individual passing them on the sidewalk talking to the voices in their head?

The police can only do so much, and more is being done by police departments across the country to address behavioral issues related to homelessness than ever before. I say behavior because it’s not the fact that people don’t have a place to live or their economic situation that draws the attention of the police. It’s the behavior homeless individuals engage in that breaks the law or disturbs the peace. 

Even working alongside mental health workers and community partners, there is only so much that can be done. If a person is an immediate danger to himself or herself or to others, or gravely disabled, then the police can act.

The ability of government to institutionalize people changed in 1975 with the Supreme Court ruling in O’Connor v. Donaldson. The ruling found that a person who is not “imminently” a danger to himself or others can’t be institutionalized. If they can stay alive on the streets, no matter the level of their mental illness, they are good to go. I don’t think the Supreme Court back then ever pictured the streets of major American cities populated by thousands of mentally ill homeless. 

You can’t force anyone to get treatment for their mental illness anymore than you can force a drug addict to go into rehab. Until this roadblock is reconsidered, mentally ill homeless will be difficult to help and will pose a public safety risk. 

Joe is a former captain with the Anaheim PD who writes columns for Behind the Badge.