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The LASD Wants to Sweep Venice, but Councilmember Mike Bonin has Other Ideas

The LASD has apparently acquired 2,000 custody beds in Downtown LA and plans to sweep the boardwalk in preparation for July 4.

Councilmember Mike Bonin (left) speaks at a City Council meeting. Sheriff Alex Villanueva (right) is surrounded by LASD employees during his photo op in Venice. (Sources: YouTube and Villanueva photo by Jon Peltz).

On Monday, June 7, District 15 Councilmember Joe Buscaino held a press conference by the encampments on the Venice Boardwalk, where he launched a mayoral campaign based on the elimination of LAHSA and the vow to use law enforcement, if necessary, to deal with the city’s homelessness crisis. 

An unhoused woman was arrested after the conference when she allegedly dropped a knife. Buscaino’s private security pulled out a gun in a crowd of people, and later Buscaino and his campaign lied on social media and to any news outlet that would listen about the incident. District 11 Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, responded on Twitter, calling out Buscaino for his hypocrisy, given the homelessness crisis in the latter’s own district. Buscaino’s press conference seems to have kicked off a week of anti-homeless, pro-law enforcement propaganda. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva brought his deputies to the boardwalk, claiming they were performing the outreach that Bonin refused to do. While his department’s abysmal record on this issue should have been a clue as to what would follow, the LASD put out its own press release, claiming to have housed a veteran named Robert at the VA. That turned out to be false

Through all of this, Councilmember Bonin has consistently called for an end to this performance by two officials heading into an election year. Councilmember Bonin took office in 2013 and is currently facing a recall effort, largely based on the notion that he has failed to properly reduce the number of homeless encampments in his district. 

Unhoused activist David-Busch Lilly says of Bonin, “In his first term in Venice, he famously came out to the boardwalk after a mattress that had been left by a homeowner in an alley caught fire, and he held a press conference and called it a ‘mattress apocalypse’ or ‘homeless apocalypse’ or something like that. [Ed note: he called it an apocalyptic scene]. It was embarrassing. What was worse is that we had three homeless people shot dead in his first term in Venice. Thankfully, I think Mike was one of the people who must have taken a lot away from that, because he did change in his second term and started working on solutions instead of feeding into the massive off-the-hook homeless hatred industry that’s going on in Venice.” Furthermore, Busch-Lilly claims Bonin has dealt responsibly with fires in encampments: “Bonin did the right thing just recently, when we had that spate of fires on the boardwalk, he didn’t run out there and say ‘We’ve gotta do a sweep.’ He reached out to the fire department, and got some fire department people to come down to the boardwalk and work on fire safety for the encampment. That was the right thing to do. That’s what we need politicians to do.” 

Meanwhile, Sheriff Villanueva has said he has an “action plan” to clear the encampments from the boardwalk prior to July 4. To get to the bottom of exactly what the City plans to do about the rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis on Venice Beach, we spoke to Councilmember Bonin on concrete plans, the specifics of outreach, his communications with the Sheriff’s Department, and plans for July 4. 

Can you talk about when you learned, or if you ever learned, that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was coming to Venice, or were you just surprised when they showed up?

All I knew was what I was hearing or seeing on social media. And the first word I got, they were actually there, was either from social media or it was from people I knew who were down on the boardwalk, or from my staff who knew people down the boardwalk. Some of the folks from the Venice Catholic Worker, Lisa Redmond, gave us some alert. There might have been some folks down there doing outreach. For me, it was a handful. I mean, we heard from like three or four people at the same time.

It’s still murky to me, but, to your knowledge, who has jurisdiction over Venice Boardwalk in terms of law enforcement?

Well, that’s not an entirely simple question. I mean, the primary responsibility is LAPD. But according to the Chief of Police, and according to the sheriff, the sheriff has authority anywhere in LA County. It’s just they’re not the primary law enforcement authority in areas where they’re not the contract law enforcement authority. Less like, say, West Hollywood or Compton where they have a contract. What’s unclear to me is what they can enforce. Can they enforce state law and penal code? Yeah, certainly. Can they enforce Los Angeles Municipal Code? That’s the question that is unanswered. Now, the thing that you’ve got to keep in mind is that on the boardwalk, you can walk 20 feet in a given direction and you’re in a different jurisdiction. So part of it is under streets, LA Street Services. Part of it is under the Department of Recreation and Parks. And part of that, which is under the Department of Recreation and Parks is maintained by the City and part of it is maintained by the County. So the beach itself, the sand, is mostly city-owned, partly state-owned. But, the City does not maintain it. The County, going back generations has, in exchange for the revenue it gets from operating parking lots down there, [done] lifeguard service and maintained the sand and the bike path. 

To your knowledge, has there been a lot of cooperation between the agencies? Because it seems to me like I’ve heard two different things: that there are certain things the LAPD wants to enforce and they’re happy the sheriffs are around helping out and — on the other hand — the LAPD says that the sheriffs are making a PR stink. I’m just curious if you’ve heard anything about that?

I really don’t know what the truth is. Yeah. And I’m not sure the answer is uniform throughout the agency. So you’ve got the local people who are down on the beach. You’ve got the Area Command. You’ve got the department brass, and you’ve got the chief. Right. So you’ve got those four layers. And I’m not exactly sure. I was pretty confident at the very early stages that there was no coordination. There certainly seems to be some more of it now. Whether it’s a strategic coordination, or just keeping each other in the loop, I’m not sure. 

The Sheriff put out that video where he asked you to come down to his office — 

I didn’t hear that part. I saw where he accused me of having a meltdown, which is a curious way to characterize my dispassionate list of bullet points of things the Civilian Commission has determined about him. 

He seems to respond quite aggressively to that sort of thing. I guess, jumping off of that, have you personally communicated with him or the LASD office? 

They’re doing their own thing, I have not communicated with the sheriff. I know that at one point, on the first day, they showed up, they started reaching out to some of the local service providers. And one of the local service providers called us. And my thinking was, “let’s get these guys off the boardwalk.” So I told my staff and said, see if they want to do an off-site meeting with the city agencies and the service providers, and actually talk about a strategy. Are they bringing any resources? Do they have any beds? And they refused. They only wanted to have a conversation down on the boardwalk. And I’m like, I’m not gonna discuss multi-agency coordination in front of television cameras. Yeah, that told me a lot about where they were coming from and what their level of sincerity was. It also told me that if they’re showing up at the boardwalk, and the day they’re showing up, they’re calling around to the local agencies to find out what resources they offer, and what beds they may have available. It told me again, the whole thing was just bullshit.

In the sense that they should have known that information beforehand?

They didn’t have anything to offer themselves, right? They wanted to come down, and they wanted to strong-arm people into stuff. And they didn’t even know what they might be plugging people into. The absurdity of it is — I mean, there’s multiple levels of absurdity of it — but one of it is they weren’t bringing anything to the table. Nothing can be more disruptive to [outreach] than a whole bunch of people in, basically, riot gear and guns, strutting around down there with television cameras. Not only did that make it hard for the sheriff to do whatever the hell they were purporting to be doing, but it made it impossible for the real service providers to do so. You can’t build trust with cameras, and guns, you just can’t. I don’t even usually bring my staff with me. And I won’t do a photo op. It’s gross and manipulative. 

One talking point I’ve heard from business owners on the boardwalk is this idea of: “We don’t know much about the LASD. But where has Mike Bonin been? Why doesn’t he come down here? At least the LASD is trying to do something. Why hasn’t Mike Bonin fixed this?” How do you respond to that sort of thing? 

Those are [two] very different things. One, I’m down there a lot. I was actually down there yesterday morning, where I was actually doing my own inventory of the tents and where they were, and talking to people who are down there. Two hours yesterday morning. In terms of why isn’t this fixed? I mean, get fucking real. You know, a single councilperson isn’t going to be able to wave a magic wand and eliminate both existing homelessness and the cause of homelessness in Los Angeles. You know, the City’s on the hook for housing. The City isn’t on the hook for the mental health crisis. I would say that we are bringing a ton of effort to Venice, that a lot of people have been actively engaged in stopping. Every homeless housing and shelter project I have proposed in Venice has been met with lawsuits and appeals. But we’ve housed more people in a couple weeks than the sheriff did the other day. I don’t do it with Klieg lights and press conferences. I’d also point out one, the sheriff actually didn’t house some of the people he said he did. And to the people he did house, or did connect to housing, [he did it] with the services that the existing agencies and the City and the County have available in their offer.

There’s this whole idea of a quick fix, and I saw the LA Times asked what your timeline was, which I thought was a strange question, because I feel like there isn’t that question really asked of many leaders in the community in terms of other districts or even the Mayor. Can you talk about what your timeline is and whether there needs to be some quick timeline?

The timeline is: when is everyone going to be offered housing? A big part of my package is being voted on by budget finance tomorrow and hopefully council before recess, and there are people who are opposed who are organizing the district against that. So that has to be made available first, then some of it depends then on if part of the money we use for master leasing — we have to have landlords who are willing to say yes. I’m not gonna say here’s a date, I’m circling on the calendar, and if the housing resources don’t materialize by that, then the people down there are through. That doesn’t make any sense.

Sheriff Villanueva has said he wants to clear the boardwalk for July 4. Is there any mass sweep planned before July 4? 

No. I should qualify that: not that I know of. Here’s a couple other factors. There are agencies that are clearly not coordinating and there may be pressure from elsewhere for them to take action. LAPD has the ability right now — the tent ordinance that we suspended doesn’t apply to parks. They have the authority right now on the sand, and on the grass, to enforce now. Technically, LAPD could do that at any time. I’m glad that they haven’t while we are offering housing resources. 

So are you coordinating with LAPD? Have they indicated to you that they are planning anything like that before July 4?

No. They have not. They have been — I’m not sure how to characterize it because it’s thousands of people — generally, they have been okay with standing back while we are trying to house people. I think that — while I am sure there are many who loved being called in for Echo Park Lake — most of them didn’t like getting sucked into the middle of that. What I’m trying to do is offer people housing and services and get people off the street without having to use law enforcement. When we’re offering housing and we’re doing outreach, we’ve asked them not to be a part of that.

There’s a rumor that there are 2000 custody beds that LASD has ready to go for some reason in regards to moving people out of Venice Beach. Have you heard that rumor?

I have heard that rumor.

After Knock LA spoke to Councilmember Bonin about this rumor, we requested comment from the LASD and they told Knock LA: “Absolutely not! Nothing of the sort has ever been stated by the sheriff, nor is that part of the action plan. As a matter of fact, there are approximately 200 people living on the Boardwalk, so the number 2,000 doesn’t even make sense. Please have Councilmember Bonin cite his sources, unless irresponsible statements without substance or merit are what he chooses to be associated with.

“We currently do not know about any future sweeps between now and July 4.”

Following that comment, Knock LA was provided evidence confirming that Sheriff Villanueva has spoken to LAPD Chief Michel Moore and Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorrell about a plan wherein he has 2,000 custody beds downtown that can be used for a 48-hour hold if the unhoused residents on the Venice boardwalk are “non-compliant.” The City Attorney preliminarily affirmed the ability of law enforcement to carry out this involuntary detention without City Council approval. Moore told Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorrell that if City Council lifts the moratorium on ordinance 56.11, the LAPD could enforce these restrictions on camping and the LASD would have to “stop the operation.”

Knock LA has reached out to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Jeff Gorrell, Eric Garcetti’s office, and the LAPD. The LASD responded with essentially the same quote Knock LA received earlier. The other offices have yet to respond. We will update this article accordingly with further responses. 

And do you know anything about that?

I haven’t heard anything about it. Honestly, if someone were planning that, I’m sure they wouldn’t tell me. It’s really very concerning. If so, it means that they are planning something significantly worse and significantly more carceral than [what happened in] Echo Park Lake. And then where would they go afterwards? Would they just get dumped out onto Skid Row?

There’s been a lot in the ether about the topic of homeless outreach in the past week — is there anything you feel has been misunderstood about the situation or that you feel people should know?

There’s so much shit that’s happened this week. This week is six months long. Part of the challenge in dealing with the homelessness crisis is that there is not and has not been an infrastructure that can properly handle housing people, right? It has historically relied on one intervention at a time. For a while it was all permanent supportive housing. And if you talked about anything else, you got dirty looks. Then it was all bridge housing. And then it was all tiny homes. We only do one thing at a time. And the City tends to do it really slowly and more expensively than is reasonable. The reality is on homelessness is you need a whole variety and menu of solutions. Because people have different needs, and different pathways off the street. [Steve] Lopez misquoted me a bit in his column this morning. I didn’t say that I wish I had done more on shared housing and master leasing. I said that I wish I’d been more successful over the past five years at convincing other elected officials that that was the way to go. We need faster ways to get people off the street. So they don’t suffer the trauma of living on the streets. My goal, from the very beginning, was: stay focused, do what needs to be done, damn the political consequences. Inaction is worse than controversy. But as long as people keep suing and appealing to stop stuff — and people in my district have more means and resources to do that — it slows things down. The other thing I just want to underscore is that as we’re trying to get people off the streets in Venice Beach, politicians coming down there with cameras — it’s simply disruptive. Because not only does it not help, but it actually hurts.

In what sense? Does it create mistrust?

It creates mistrust. Also, it’s absolutely disruptive when the sheriff is walking down the street, right, with deputies with cameras in tow, with the people who have sued to stop solutions, and then you’ve got other people screaming at them from the other side. That’s a circus sideshow. Outreach isn’t happening when there’s a circus sideshow 10 feet from you. It’s just not. The thing I’ve been saying is, we need people who are willing to solve this crisis and not exploit it. And we’ve seen a lot of exploitation this past week.