Homeless Grandmother Arrested 59 Times for Sitting on Sidewalk
May 01, 2014
Here's an interesting use of public resources: as part of a decade-long effort to "clean up" Skid Row in Los Angeles (i.e. run the homeless out of the area to ease development), the city of LA has spent at least a quarter of a million dollars arresting, prosecuting and jailing just one homeless woman, 59-year-old Ann Moody, mostly for sitting on a public sidewalk.
Moody has been arrested 59 times in six years, reports the Los Angeles Times. She's spent 15 months in jail since 2002. As the article points out, Moody has been arrested more than any other person in the entire city of Los Angeles.
The 59-year-old grandmother earned that distinction by flouting part of the municipal code that restricts sleeping, lying or sitting on a public sidewalk between 9pm and 6am, although she's also been bagged for selling cigarettes. She explained her bad behavior to the Times: "We're human beings, not to be pushed around like cattle," she said. "We have a right to be stationary."
Police and local business leaders disagree with Moody's human rights philosophy. Emails between members of a business association and LAPD officials refer to efforts to roust her as "Operation Bad Moody." In the emails they pat each other on the back for sending her to jail and seem to delight in the fines she racks up. There's even a hilarious joke about an Ann Moody Halloween costume. Police officials detail their Moody-fighting strategies, like tracking her to make sure she's in exact compliance with a court order that she stay 200 yards from a particular street.
UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, who has conducted studies on policing in Skid Row, tells AlterNet there's a reason Moody raises the ire of police officials. "Unlike the other targets, she doesn't just go away. That corner is where she thinks she should be."
The evidently doomed crusade to keep Moody off the sidewalks of Skid Row is one of the odder outcomes of a decade-long police crackdown on the area's large concentration of homeless people.
In 2006, the city launched the Safer Cities Initiative. Brainchild of then-Los Angeles police chief William Bratton, Safer Cities sent 50 extra officers to Skid Row with instructions to bust people for pretty much everything, from jaywalking and open containers to prostitution and drug crimes. Safer Cities was inspired by the "broken-windows" theory of crime fighting (Bratton has been a career-long booster), which claims that busting people for nuisance and low-level crimes helps prevent more serious criminal activity.
An assessment of Safer Cities conducted by Blasi and the UCLA School of Law Fact Investigation Clinic found that the LAPD handed out 12,000 citations in the first year. Most were for pedestrian violations. Blasi points out that the inability to pay fines, or show up to court on time due to mental illness or substance abuse, tends to lead to arrest warrants, shuttling the indigent away from homelessness resources and into the jails.
"The goal of the Safer Cities Initiative is to force poor people of color to move," says Blasi. "When they don't move, they go into the criminal justice system."
Even before the official launch of Safer Cities, Bratton's LAPD made use of a strict anti-camping ordinance to break up homeless encampments in the area, confiscating property and busting homeless people for laying or sitting on the sidewalk. In 2006, a federal appeals court ruled that the city could no longer arrest people for sleeping and sitting in public, especially given the city's lack of adequate shelter for the homeless. Under an eventual court settlement, the homeless were allowed to sleep in the street at night, but can be busted for illegal lodging between 6am and 9pm.
Although Skid Row's homeless population dropped when the Safer Cities Initiative was first introduced, it went right back up after the financial collapse. "There are more people living on Skid Row now than when [the program] began," says Blasi. "Some people move, some recover. But Skid Row is replenished with a vast pool of incredibly poor people."
Sending them off to jail does not appear to have solved the area's homelessness problem.
Meanwhile, William Bratton, who served as NYPD police commissioner in the 1990s before heading the LAPD, is back at the helm of the New York Police Department. While Bratton has earned credit for backing away from aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics, he seems to be bringing back policies in line with the broken-windows theory of policing. Bratton outlined his philosophy in the New York Times in March, saying, “If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of the big things." The first few months of his tenure as NYPD police chief saw a rise in arrests of panhandlers and peddlers, as well as a jump in the policing of violations such as riding a bike on a sidewalk. Most recently he also announced a crackdown on graffiti.
Blasi says Bratton learned an important lesson in Los Angeles that he may be applying to New York.
"You don't need to stop-and-frisk people. Just give out tickets that could lead to warrants of arrest."