On a recent chilly evening, four drug addicts chatted on a Hollywood sidewalk, dirty syringes in hand, waiting to collect new needles.
Then the police arrived. The addicts froze as, within minutes, seven officers marched into the needle exchange and seven others faced the addicts down from across Sycamore Avenue.
Peggy Roman-Jacobson, a volunteer attorney for the exchange, Clean Needles Now, approached the officers. Though their conversation was inaudible, she later recalled telling them, "You don't have a right to be here." The response, she said, was, "We're just walking through."
"They make everyone nervous," one 28-year-old addict said, as he started to cry. "Where else are we supposed to go?"
No one was arrested, but needle exchange staffers and addicts say it was the latest instance in which police have intimidated users of a long-standing, lawful program designed to get dirty needles off the street.
Last week, Shoshanna Scholar, executive director of Clean Needles Now, made her third trip to the Los Angeles Police Commission to complain about alleged police harassment. She said her site had been targeted by police three times in a five-week period, resulting in six searches, an arrest for a parole violation and the confiscation of one man's needles.
"The police presence in itself will keep people from coming. Just their presence is enough," said Scholar, who said participation in her program has declined significantly since police began showing up in mid-September. She is scheduled to discuss the matter with Los Angeles Police Department officials today.
Police Commission President John W. Mack said at last week's meeting that the department must quickly address the issue, noting that the LAPD's inspector general's office is investigating. "We need to get on top of this because this is now becoming a weekly kind of episode," Mack said. But Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said in an interview that it is "totally bogus" to say that police are targeting needle exchanges.
"We are not targeting anybody," he said.
Bratton said he supports needle exchange programs, as he did as chief of police departments in Boston and New York City. Department guidelines, which were updated in July, do not allow targeting of syringe exchanges for the sole purpose of identifying or detaining people on drug-related offenses.
But Bratton, who increased the police presence in Hollywood recently, said the department could not ignore crime problems around needle exchange programs.
"They've had a couple of incidents," he said. "Whoop-dee-doo. This is a big city. I have a lot of police officers . To interpret that as targeting, that's what I'm affronted by."
Capt. Michael Moriarty, patrol division commander of the Hollywood Division, said the officers had not done anything wrong at the Hollywood needle exchange site. In the most recent case, on Oct. 20, the 14 officers near the site were mostly recruits on a high-visibility foot beat to deter crime, Moriarty said.
They did not know the needle exchange was there but have since been briefed, he said.
Moriarty said that needle exchanges are not a "police-free zone" but that he would be upset if his officers were "spinning their wheels running after people with hypodermic needles. There's much bigger fish to catch."
Another complaint has been filed against the LAPD regarding police activity around an exchange in Pacoima, run out of a van underneath the 118 Freeway overpass. That complaint came from city AIDS Coordinator Stephen Simon, who wrote that 14 officers handcuffed and searched 10 people waiting at the site, as well as a staffer. Two were arrested.
Simon wrote in his complaint that he expects the department "will take appropriate steps to ensure that officers understand the department's policy regarding needle exchange sites, and determine if other action is appropriate."
Capt. Kirk Albanese, commanding officer of the division in Mission Hills, said the police presence was justified. Two suspects wanted on narcotics-related charges had stopped at the Tarzana Treatment Center exchange. Officers had search warrants for the suspects and did not know the van was a needle exchange, Albanese said.
"There was no intent to go there as a result of the location being a needle exchange," Albanese said. The suspects "just happened to stop there, and that's why we detained them there, it's really that simple."
Tom Martinez, director of community programs and services for Tarzana Treatment Center, said that it was the first such incident involving police in years and that the police acted appropriately under the circumstances.
In recent years, studies have shown that needle exchanges effectively reduce syringe sharing, leading to a drop in HIV and hepatitis C transmission. Los Angeles approved an emergency measure permitting such exchanges in 1994, and began funding them. Needle exchanges must apply to the city to operate.
"I have a hard time believing they need 14 police officers walking up and down the beat" near an exchange, volunteer attorney Roman-Jacobson said. "I don't have a problem with one or two officers walking down the street, but why is it that they need to be standing there" in those numbers.
"We're not liked by them," Roman-Jacobson said. "In part, it's a way to shut us down."
It's a shame, said Michael Marquesen, 40, a former addict who now works at Clean Needles Now. Drug users deserve a chance to have access to a legitimate public health intervention, he said.
Without these services, "I could have caught HIV and died a long time ago," Marquesen said.
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