The Force Is With Him

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

Smith credits Beckx with more than a policy change. Because of Beckx, he says, Santa Ana cops view the homeless in a whole new way.

"We used to have a very edgy relationship with the police until Randy educated us and them about how we could work together," Smith says. "We have a much better relationship with the police department and the city as a result of him. We can count on the fact that if someone is elderly and incapacitated, Randy can find a way to get the person off the street."

* * *

Beckx had already been on the force for 18 years in 1998 when he experienced something like arrest fatigue—locking up a seemingly infinite line of homeless people for such petty crimes as trespassing, camping, loitering, and urinating and defecating in public.

"After arresting the same people over and over again for the same things, it started to feel like a complete waste of time," he said.

Back then, the Santa Ana Police Department—like the rest of Orange County's law-enforcement agencies—didn't have a specific policy for homeless people who suffered from mental illness. So Beckx asked his boss, Police Chief Paul Walters, to allow him and other officers to get directly involved in helping the homeless.

Walters agreed. While the police department still has no formal policy for dealing with mentally ill homeless people, the chief allowed Beckx to make it his personal mission to get them off the streets. For the past few years, Beckx, who patrols downtown Santa Ana, has spent more than half of his time keeping track of elderly and mentally ill homeless people, trying to get them to voluntarily agree to join a treatment program. "Chief Walters believes that homeless people need treatment—not a jail cell," Beckx explained.

This year, Beckx became a member of the Orange County Health Care Agency (HCA) mental-health board, a group of volunteer experts who advise the county Board of Supervisors on mental-health issues. Twice a month, Beckx shares ideas and plans strategies with other board members. Almost the entire board consists of HCA employees; Beckx is the only cop.

Beckx is so good at his job the department sometimes asks him to deal with cases that don't involve homeless people.

Take Bruce Bruns, who, since childhood, has suffered from various complications of juvenile diabetes. He says he's lucky to be alive; that his eyesight changes with his blood sugar levels; that he has to constantly give himself insulin injections and check his blood glucose levels (even in the middle of the night), take vitamins, exercise, maintain his own medical equipment, eat six times per day, and keep his files up to date. His life is so hard that sometimes he feels like screaming. Sometimes he does.

One night a few weeks ago, Bruns' neighbors complained to the apartment manager about his yelling. The apartment manager called the cops. The officers who responded saw a distraught man who seemed to pose no physical threat to others, so they called Beckx.

The next morning, Beckx and his partner, Stephen Brown, a psychiatric nurse with the HCA's mental-health department, knocked on Bruns' apartment door. He shyly shook hands with the two visitors and invited them in. A radio station on the stereo played soft classical music. Stacks of moving boxes—some taped shut, some half full—filled the apartment. Lamps and other small pieces of furniture were pushed into a corner.

On Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving, Bruns is scheduled for eviction. But Bruns has already found a new apartment just a few blocks away where he can move the day he's ejected. He has already filled out an application and made a deposit on the place. So after 30 minutes of listening to Bruns vent, Beckx and Brown left the apartment satisfied that everything will work out. They're happy that Bruns allowed them inside, got some sorrow out of his system, and wasn't afraid to talk to a cop in uniform—or even shout—about his problems.

Brown mentioned as much shortly after the pair got back in their unmarked white Chevrolet.

"With another officer, it might not have ended like that," Brown said. "I usually don't even let people yell at me. That's my boundary. But Officer Beckx is a little more patient with that kind of stuff."

* * *

A child of Belgian immigrants, Beckx was born in Holland and raised in Santa Ana. During his first 20 years as a cop, he worked as a regular patrol officer, investigator and air-support officer. He later became attached to the department's SWAT team. Then he joined the city's Civic Center detail, driving a golf cart through Santa Ana's sprawling county government administrative complex. The area is home to several thousand homeless people—by far the largest concentration of homeless in Orange County.

One of the first homeless people Beckx routinely encountered was a man with a tumor the size of a golf ball on his nose.

"I ran into this individual while on patrol in February 1998," Beckx said. "I found him living in a dumpster. He was mentally ill. He'd been living there for some time and was in pain. I was just moved with sorrow for this guy."

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