By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The most egregious case alleged in the lawsuit involved Armando Cervantes, a Mexican immigrant who had worked in the garment industry for years until he lost his job and his home after a broken leg prevented him from working. He was still on crutches and in a cast in July 1999, when he was sitting on Sixth Street, having just finished a meal at the Hippie Kitchen. A group of red shirts arrived, made Cervantes stand, searched him, confiscated his pain medication, and, believing that they had found crack cocaine among his belongings, cuffed him and forced him to hobble, without his crutches, down the block to their car. Jeff Dietrich and Alice Callaghan both attempted to intervene, to no avail. Only when the police arrived and determined that what the security guards had thought to be crack was in fact bread crumbs, was he released.
The biggest problem with the shirts’ behavior, says Callaghan, is not just the lack of training indicated by their inability to distinguish crack from bread crumbs. Red shirts get only around 40 hours of training before hitting the streets, yellow shirts just a few hours more. L.A. cops, by contrast, who are not famous for their skill at dealing with the homeless, spend eight months at the Academy, then one year under supervised probation. The real problem, Callaghan says, is that they are accountable to no one but the property owners: “The police have to abide by the Constitution. They are held to a whole different standard, and when they violate it, you have recourse. The remedy when [private security guards] do something is that poor homeless person has to take that individual guard to court.” Most people on the streets, of course, lack the resources to sue an abusive guard, which is why the ACLU suit was brought on behalf of an entire class of plaintiffs.
Not only are the shirts completely unaccountable to the public, Callaghan says, but despite their uniforms, they have no more legal right to stop someone, to search them or confiscate a shopping cart than any other private citizen. Guards, just like anyone else, can ask you to leave if you‘re on private property without permission. And, just like anyone else, they can call the police or make a citizen’s arrest if you‘re violating the law. They have no more rights than you do, though, to search strangers on the street, handcuff them, deprive them of shopping carts, or demand that they pour out a beer and move along. But many of “the guys,” as Callaghan affectionately refers to the Row’s denizens, don‘t know this. And those who do also understand that “If you don’t listen to the guards, they‘ll call the police.” Since almost everyone living on the streets has a few unpaid tickets (for jaywalking, drinking in public, blocking the sidewalk), “Everybody has an outstanding warrant,” and any run-in with police can mean a few weeks in County Jail. So many, in Callaghan’s words, “go along to get along.” This made it clear to Callaghan that, regardless of the final outcome of the lawsuit, since the shirts are not going to go away, a “The real solution is to get the guys on the Row to stop cooperating.”
To that end, Callaghan and Catholic Worker volunteers began plastering the streets of Skid Row with colorful stickers designed by Robbie Conal depicting a security guard on a bicycle and the words “Shirts are not cops.” They began handing out bilingual pamphlets explaining the restrictions the interim agreement placed on the shirts‘ behavior, concluding with the admonition: “REMEMBER: The Shirts are not police. They have no authority to order you about on public property . . . DO NOT ’MOVE ON‘ JUST BECAUSE A SHIRT THINKS YOU ARE NOT PRETTY TO LOOK AT. You are part of the public. The sidewalks of America are yours to be upon.”
BID administrators are not fond of Callaghan’s stickers, though -- perhaps for laughs -- the Central City East Association has a framed “Shirts are not cops” poster on the wall outside its conference room, and the Fashion District operations director has one on his office wall. Still, they credit the posters with, in Tracey Lovejoy‘s words, creating “more of a hostile atmosphere on the street.” Along with other BID officials, she steadfastly denies the allegations put forth in the lawsuit. In response to the many claims that red shirts routinely stopped, searched and photographed the homeless, Lovejoy says, “We don’t do that. Never have.” Of the yellow shirts, now in the clear as far as the lawsuit goes, Fashion District BID executive director Kent Smith has said they never harassed anyone, never chased anyone out of the area, never illegally searched anyone. “We had been asking people to move along, asking them politely,” he says. “Now we just inform them when they‘re violating the law.”
“Our safety team,” according to Smith, “is there to help people.” They give directions to lost shoppers, respond to shoplifting calls from merchants, help people who have locked their keys in their cars and, Smith says, provide “outreach” services to the homeless when they need it. “We’ve had countless times where we have intervened to help mentally ill homeless people who are wandering out into traffic, overdosing . . . and we try to get those people into treatment where we can. It‘s a challenge,” Smith insists. “They have to want to get help.”