Small citations add up to big problems in Skid Row and South LA

It’s rare to catch Becky Dennison alone at her desk. Co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Dennison spends many of her working hours with community leaders, committee heads, and the homeless and low income people her nonprofit seeks to help.

In the past month, she’s been to housing protests, court cases, and police commissioner meetings. But recently, more and more of her group’s time and energy have been devoted to helping people deal with one thing: crosswalk violations.

In between bites of instant noodles, Dennison spoke from her funky, loft-like office in the Community Action Network’s headquarters downtown about the transformation of the group over time.

Since the organization was founded over 12 years ago, Dennison has seen changes in the size and scope of the group’s membership, but also in the primary issues they’re addressing. What started as a nonprofit hoping to fix civil rights violations in Skid Row morphed into a housing and tenants’ rights group and now, more recently, they’ve added a legal clinic to help people deal with the massive amount of citations that are handed out downtown.

The emphasis shifted in 2006 with the start of LAPD’s Safer Cities Initiative, which put 50 extra officers in Skid Row and embraced the “broken windows” theory of policing. The thought was that if the increased police presence could help control quality of life issues like vandalism, bigger issues like violent crimes and robberies would also drop.

The success of the initiative depends on whom you ask. Police say crime is down, and even though it was supposed to be an intensive, nine-month project, the initiative is still going on almost five years later.

Dennison thinks the project is directly related to the gentrification of downtown. “It’s our position, so it’s an unfounded opinion, but it is based in reality, is that the point of Safer Cities was to clear folks out of the area. The original name for it was the Homeless Reduction Strategy.”

Whatever the name, the operation has seen increased levels of tickets and citations throughout Skid Row. “In the first year alone they gave 12,000 citations out in a community that’s home to 15,000 people,” Dennison said.

“And so, for people who don’t break the law, the tickets are a way to get folks into the system, and get them a warrant, and then when you do the sweep, you find the warrant and you put people in jail,” she continued. “And the idea is, if you put folks in jail enough times, they’ll just give up and leave the neighborhood.”

As it turns out, people have not left the neighborhood—Dennison said they’re grounded in Skid Row because all their services are there.

And a 2008 study by UCLA concluded that the Safer Cities Initiative did not reduce crime in Skid Row except in the case of robberies, where there was a reduction in one robbery per year for each officer assigned to the area.

But the people seeking help at Community Action Network’s legal clinic are not worried about robberies, Dennison said. They’re working about citations.
“The reason we took on the citations in the clinic is because for simple crosswalk violations, you’ve got a $160 fine to begin with, you can’t pay it within a couple months and it’s $666 dollars, and then you have a warrant, and then you’re in jail.”

And Dennison is careful to point out that these crosswalk violations are different from jaywalking or “or actual things that could put people at risk.”

“Something like 80 percent of our tickets are for walking on the flashing don’t walk sign, which just means you basically didn’t walk fast enough,” Dennison said.

While there are some other options for legal aid in Skid Row, Community Action Network is the only one that directly addresses these citations and helps to get the tickets dismissed.

“And then for those that we can’t get outright dismissed, we can get a much more reasonable community service,” Dennison said. She explained for community services sentences through the court, there’s still a fee involved. Through Community Action Network people are able to perform those same service options for free.

At a Board of Police Commissioners meeting about the Safer Cities Initiative in early March, Central Division Captain Todd Chamberlain told Annenberg Radio News that the officers in the initiative go above and beyond their duties. “These people are not assigned there,” said Chamberlain. “They make a choice to come and work in the SCI area. That’s an extremely difficult and unique adventure to go out into every single day, and yet they do it with a passion and they do it because they really got a calling in their heart of hearts to be there supporting that community.”

Dennison still thinks the endless tickets and citations are less about support and more about trying to move undesirable people out of an area that’s otherwise just waiting to be gentrified.

“You walk around the city, do you get jaywalking tickets?” she asked. “I’ve never gotten one anywhere, including here. It’s a very targeted effort.”

Wordle based on transcript of Becky Dennison’s interview