Santa Ana River: A Place Without Law

Police and sheriff offices offer scant oversight of a fast-growing homeless encampment in Orange County, along with the Santa Ana River, urging people who work with the homeless to suggest that violence and dealing with illicit substances in the community soon could grow.

Officials from the Anaheim Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff pinpoint to jurisdictional conflicts. Lack of funds and a fear of lawsuits as some of the causes why a cluster of tents and temporary dwellings that house upwards of 100 people near the western bank of the Santa Ana River are not getting full-time patrols or regular criminal investigations.

They also dispute any contention that the area – which is part of a large homeless camp along the river that includes several hundred people – is getting null police coverage, saying they respond to 911 calls, examine when possible and have full-time homeless officers who assist with social services.

However, officials also acknowledge that, beyond the bureaucratic headaches, policing the river is difficult.

It is a community where potential victims and predators are in close, constant touch. There are no addresses, and the population is often itinerant. It is also a relatively new community that hasn’t been considered in long-term funding plans, meaning the river stages a diversion of already stretched resources. Moreover, police are wary of lawsuits that might result from working in the river.

However, residents in the river and their advocates say those hurdles translate into few cops or deputies in the area. Moreover, they say the lack of protection, combined with a “don’t snitch” attitude among inhabitants, is turning parts of the river into an area where vigilante violence is the norm and drug dealers terrorize locals with near impunity.

Whose river is it?

There is little crime information for the river, in part due to people complaining about lack of police appearance. Also, they are not inclined to call the police to notify a crime.

It is clear that law enforcement’s response to reports they do receive can be disordered. Anaheim police department, Orange police department, and the O.C. Sheriff, each of them views parts of the area as the other’s responsibility.

Anaheim police say they never consented to patrol the river, choosing not to sign a turn-of-the-century arrangement that asked the city to monitor the area.

In contrast, the City of Orange’s police department said it patrols and investigates all crime reports along with its more populated area of the river. Orange County, which chose to sign the agreement with the county in 2000 to provide law enforcement services, summarized 12 aggravated assaults last year and two rapes over the past 18 months.

Unreported crimes

By all means, the data from Orange Police reflect only a fraction of the crime in the area, but they do confirm that at least some victims in homeless encampments will report crimes when given a chance.

Homeless advocates say they have learned of violent crime sprees occurring within the disputed jurisdiction.

“We know that other rapes go silent,” said Paul Leon, founder, and president of the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides health services to the homeless.

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Over the past year, Leon said, non-homeless drug dealers have also moved into the territory to sell their products, a change that has made it even tougher for anyone who calls law enforcement.

“They will threaten people, saying, ‘If I see a cop around here, I am not going to get you any more drugs’ or ‘I will beat you up,’” Leon said. “And even if (a crime) gets reported, it is hard because the people are itinerant; they do not have a house with a number. So police have a hard time getting ahold of them and might be too busy to try.”

Officials from Anaheim police department and the county sheriff dispute that they have officers working full-time in the area to assist social service providers and serve as connections to the homeless community. Moreover, the Anaheim police say they have worked with a nonprofit to help 780 homeless people either reunite with family or find some shelter.

Sher Stuckman is not worried about whose jurisdiction she is living in. The former physician’s administrative assistant, 59, said she had been living in the river just for a couple of days, but she already knew a key rule:

“Don’t call the cops,” Stuckman said. “We handle it ourselves.”

In the meantime 11,000 sign petition to clear homeless from Santa Ana River Trail; it is considered a state of emergency and we are still waiting for a determination on the matter.

Watch a video about the Santa Ana River Trail and it’s Homeless issue

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