‘Our hands are tied.’ Incidents of homeless violence raise concerns

A scene that played out recently at a homeless encampment in downtown San Diego captured the violence that often erupts in the unruly tent cities, the feelings of helplessness of those who witnessed it and the frustration facing law enforcement who often are unwilling or unable to intervene.

Heather Lezon, executive director and founder of the Youth Assistance Coalition in Logan Heights, said she and others at her nonprofit heard a commotion outside around 4:30 p.m. Dec. 21 and then saw a man wearing what appeared to be a bulletproof vest in an encampment punch another man, who left with a bloody face.

She began filming from across the street and saw the man in the vest go into his tent and return with what appeared to be a long metal rod, which he swung at another man who confronted him. She can be heard on the recording asking for someone to call the police, and she said six patrol cars arrived within minutes.

Yet there were no arrests, and she said an officer told her the incident was over and there was nothing they could do.

“I was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’” she said. “This was like extreme violence of like five people fighting, and you’re just going to let it go?”

Lezon said an officer later returned to her organization, which is focused on helping homeless youths, to talk to her more about the incident.

“He said, ‘Heather, our hands are tied,’” she said. “‘We need people to go to the City Council. We need more police. We need more help. We need to be able to arrest someone. We need the community’s voice to help us be able to do our job.’”

She said she doesn’t blame the police, because they did quickly respond to the call, but she was frustrated to hear them say there was nothing they could do. She said officers told her part of the problem is they can no longer make arrests for simple drug possession because of Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot measure that significantly reduced penalties for drug crimes. Former San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman wrote an op-ed about her opposition to the proposition last March in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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