Why the homeless might be especially vulnerable to police violence

Experts cite mental illness and criminalization of homelessness as factors contributing to greater danger

When Los Angeles police shot and killed a homeless man over the weekend, it was only the latest of several violent encounters between the homeless and law enforcement agencies. In February, a Florida police officer was allegedly caught on film assaulting a homeless man. And last year, a homeless camper was shot to death by Albuquerque, New Mexico, police officers who have subsequently been charged with murder.

It is too early to tell what consequences will flow from the Los Angeles shooting. At a Monday press conference, LAPD chief Charlie Beck told reporters that the homeless man, reportedly known as “Africa,” had struggled with one of the police officers over his gun.

Yet the apparent prevalence of similar cases has led some experts to theorize that homeless people might be more susceptible to police violence than the population at large.

Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty (NLCHP), said there isn’t much hard data on the rate of police violence against the homeless. But he said there is substantial evidence of “higher levels of violence against homeless people, including police violence, but not limited to it."

“The correlation we do see is in communities where homelessness is most criminalized — where they have ordinances that are anti-sleeping in public, anti-camping — those are the same places where we’ve seen the highest rates of violent crime [against homeless people],” said Tars.

Criminalizing behaviors that homeless people are virtually obligated to participate in, such as sleeping and eating in public or loitering, causes them to be “regularly cycled through prisons and jails, which exacerbates discrimination, exclusion, and violation,” according to a 2014 NLCHP report on criminalization. Tars argued that discrimination and exclusion effectively dehumanizes the homeless, making them more vulnerable to violent attacks from the community at large.

Turning the homeless into de facto criminals also increases the likelihood that they will come face-to-face with the police. According to Urban Institute fellow John Roman, that alone could increase the likelihood of a violent encounter.

“There’s a theory that sort of explains this relationship that says, the more opportunity you have to interact with the police, the more likely that confrontation will become violent,” said Roman. “Plus you also have a population that, relative to the rest of society, is more likely to have mental health issues, more likely to have drug and alcohol issues, and so more likely to behave in ways that cause the police to respond aggressively."

Criminal ordinances targeting homelessness are on the rise, according to another 2014 report from the NLCHP. That report, titled “No Safe Place,” found that city laws against sitting or lying down in public had increased by 43 percent since 2011, while laws against sleeping in vehicles had risen 119 percent. Tars said such ordinances only put homeless people in more danger from law enforcement and other forces, while doing nothing to address the underlying issues.

“Homeless people are people. They aren’t a nuisance or problem to be solved through criminal enforcement, or through other measures to make them go away,” he said. “The way to solve homelessness is to provide housing."

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