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LOOKS LIKE THE L.A. TIMES has found a creative way to help satisfy its profit-hungry bosses at the Tribune Co.: It’s apparently shifting the costs of some metro reporting to the LAPD payroll. At least, that’s the sensation I got from reading last Saturday’s cheery story from staff writer Richard Winton as he breathlessly listed the supposed successes of the now 5-month-old LAPD “Safer Cities” crackdown on Skid Row. If Chief Bratton doesn’t already have Winton on the pad, the Times ought to send him over an invoice.

Relying primarily on self-serving statements from a police captain, and with no actual reporting that can be detected by the naked eye, Winton declares the crackdown a clear success, writing: “Among downtown residents and advocates for the homeless, there is consensus that the 50 extra officers the LAPD assigned to the district have improved the situation — though they say the area remains mired in poverty, blight and drugs.” The Times staffer detected this consensus, it seems, by quoting two representatives of the business lobby, the police captain and one relief-mission official (who gives a mixed review to the enforcement operation).

I read the piece quickly, filed it under Stenography Journalism and quickly forgot about it. That is, until two days later, when Daily Journal reporter Anat Rubin took on the same story and seemed to be reporting from the other side of the moon. She got the real story, a big, fat, juicy and important story, and one that the Times completely overlooked in its rush to publish a puffer.

In an urgently written dispatch, quoting nearly a dozen L.A. County public defenders, Rubin portrays the same Skid Row crackdown as a cynical and discriminatory push to consciously overcharge and jail the local homeless population in order to make the Nickel safer for commercial development.

The public defenders allege that the LAPD has a coordinated strategy of turning simple crack-possession arrests into serious multiple-felony narcotics-sales raps, exposing a primarily mentally ill community of users to long prison terms. And, they say, the D.A.’s Office is playing along with the cops. The result: an outrageous policy that treats minor crack-possession cases arising from Skid Row in a much different, and more severe, manner than similar arrests anywhere else in the city. Those arrested are predominantly homeless vets who are often caught selling half of their personal rock to an undercover cop. Accused as dealers, with a prior bust on the record they could do eight, 10 or even 22 years in state prison instead of getting the probation, drug-treatment referral or short county-jail sentence that other smalltime users get.

The Times, again apparently quoting police sources, dutifully reports that the operation has “resulted in more than 1,000 drug arrests alone.” So?

Rubin of the Journal, however, does the real work and unpacks, in rather harrowing detail, those seemingly glossy numbers. Of the 1,400 arrests made by undercover cops since the Skid Row sweep began last summer, Rubin reports, a mind-blowing 1,093 were categorized as cases of “possession for sale.” Think about that for a moment. The LAPD and the D.A. are claiming that they busted more than a thousand dealers in five months in one small area of the city? Who does that leave as their client base? Unless I’m missing something, the cops’ own stats give the lie to the official version.

Rubin also talks to the cops, but goes beyond quoting their prepackaged spin. Central Division Captain Jodi Wakefield is amply quoted in the Journal piece, defending the program, denying the cops are overcharging the homeless users, but then admitting that many of the arrests for sales are, indeed, “people selling a rock to get their own.” In other words, they are not dealers. They’re just very poor addicts selling off a sliver of their own meager stash to a narc.

The folks quoted in the Times article, the downtown business reps and lobbyists, of course, think the crackdown absolutely rocks. From their perspective, whatever gets the homeless crack users off the street can only be good for business. Who cares if a couple of hundred crack-addled Vietnam vets are getting unjustly sent up the river?

We, the rest of us who live in the city, however, ought to care a lot. And not just out of basic human decency and respect for equitable application of the law (which should be but never is enough). If the version of events reported by the Journal is anywhere near accurate, the city and the LAPD are deploying extraordinary resources at public expense to clean up Skid Row for a few dozen toy wholesalers and a handful of loft and condo developers while other parts of our town are increasingly submerged in the deadly dance of gang warfare. Our state prison system is bursting at the seams, in danger of a federal takeover, all while the ill-named “Safer Cities” crackdown streams hundreds of the homeless into the same system for extended stays.

I’m generally a supporter of both Mayor Villaraigosa and Chief Bratton, but on this one they owe us a much better and more forthcoming explanation of what’s really going down on Skid Row. We’re certainly not getting it from the Times.