The Force Is With Him

In a department once noted for its cruelty toward the homeless, Santa Ana cop Randy Beckx produced a revolution

Photo by Nick SchouBruce Bruns is a mess. Dressed in yellow shorts and a white undershirt, he sits dejectedly at his kitchen table in a modest one-bedroom Santa Ana apartment. He's talking to Officer Randy Beckx, a 22-year Santa Ana Police Department veteran who specializes in dealing with the city's mentally ill and homeless population.

"Did you call that hot line number I gave you over the telephone last night?" Beckx asks.

"No. I just got a little angry," Bruns says. "I know I talk a lot, but sometimes there's no simple answer."

"Well, we just want to know that you're okay," Beckx says.

At first, Bruns is silent. Then his face turns red, and his eyes well with tears. He covers his ears with both hands and starts sobbing.

"I don't know," Bruns finally says. "It hurts too much. I have a broken foot. I have a broken back. I have back pain and have to take all these injections, and the food doesn't move out of my stomach."

Beckx hands Bruns a tissue from a box on the table. Bruns takes it and wipes at his tears.

"I'm tired of it," he continues, his voice rising in desperation, his face getting even redder. "My whole life! My entire life! There's nothing else I can do! All my life goes to medical bills, and I'm tired of it! It hurts so much!"

Bruns starts grabbing his head. "I have to stand in line for two hours to get medication. I'm supposed to stand on my feet for two hours? Stand for two hours! To get some medication that's supposed to help my broken foot? I'm sick of it!"

"You know, Bruce, there are services that can deliver your medication," Beckx offers. "We can look into that for you."

Bruns doesn't seem to hear him.

"And I'm expected to display normal, happy behavior!" he screams. He raises his arm and violently slams it to the kitchen table, scattering sheets of paper onto the floor. "And when I go to do my shopping, people keep bumping into me, choosing not to see my scarred, ripped-apart body! If they keep doing that to me, then I will purposefully barge into people and knock them down!"

Bruns punctuates each of his points by slapping the table.

"Stop having fucking babies!" he shouts. "It's not my fault you have 4.2 billion people living here! Stop having fucking babies!"

"Are you yelling because you're trying to make a point?" Beckx asks, his voice a model of calmness.

Bruns lowers his voice so that it's barely above a whisper.

"I'm yelling to get my anger out," he says.

Beckx, who had previously received complaints from Bruns' landlord, asks if Bruns has ever broken his furniture. He confesses that he may have thrown a cup in the sink. "I may have dented my stainless steel sink, but that's all," he says. "I'm never physically violent. I know my yelling disturbs people, but I thought maybe people will understand me. But the way I yell, I don't think that helps."

Beckx offers to tell the apartment manager about the situation, that Bruns is just venting, and says he will ask the manager not to call the cops unless furniture is being broken. He warns Bruns not to break any furniture or intentionally bump into people while he's shopping.

Other police officers, who often respond to displays of aggressive behavior with handcuffs, batons or even gunshots, might have reacted differently to the situation.

"To be honest," Beckx admits later with a chuckle, "I've had to take a lot of my police training and turn it on its head."

* * *

Forty-eight-year-old Randy Beckx hasn't just turned his own training on its head. He has turned around his entire police department when it comes to dealing with the city's mentally ill homeless population.

A little more than a decade ago, Santa Ana PD had a bad reputation when it came to dealing with the homeless. The city was forced to pay $50,000 in damages in April 1990, after cops confiscated the bedrolls of homeless people during one of their endless Civic Center cleanup campaigns. The following month, the county's Legal Aid Society filed four civil-rights lawsuits against the department on behalf of homeless people.

Later that year, police arrested 63 homeless in another raid on the Civic Center. About half of those arrested sued and won judgments totaling more than $400,000 against the city. As in other Orange County cities, it remains illegal to "camp" outdoors in Santa Ana. As recently as December 2001, people who live outdoors near the Civic Center complained to OC Weekly about Santa Ana cops shadowing them and issuing citations for such minor infractions as jaywalking.

Dwight Smith, who runs the Catholic Worker homeless shelter in downtown Santa Ana, says the department has a history of harassing the homeless. He recalls the days when it would rain and homeless people would congregate under the Civic Center's pagoda. "The city manager would call the chief of police and demand to know why those people were still there, and the police would come and harass me about some parking violation," says Smith. "Now, because of Randy Beckx, that doesn't happen anymore."

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