The Force Is With Him

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

The day after meeting the man, Beckx returned to the dumpster with his partner, determined to get the man to a hospital. "His clothes were soaked with urine and feces, and I noticed the tumor on his nose had brightened from him picking at it," he said. "We brought him to a hospital, and the doctors successfully removed his tumor before it could kill him. Later, I heard that he had been placed in a shelter."

Beckx didn't stop there.

"I started making telephone calls to the HCA," he said. He contacted experts with the agency's Mentally-Ill Offender Crime Reduction Unit, the group responsible for addressing the crime problem posed by the county's estimated 20,000 homeless people. At their invitation, he began attending the group's meetings.

"When I went to my first meeting, I was the only guy in uniform," Beckx said. "Everybody looked at me, wondering what I was doing there." He explained that he was tired of arresting the same people dozens of times per year. "This isn't working," he said. "Can you help us?"

After making his pitch, Beckx paired up with two HCA mental-health clinicians. At least twice a week, they patrolled Santa Ana's Civic Center area, observing homeless people, building relationships with them—and ultimately trying to persuade them to get hospital treatment. On one occasion, he and one of the clinicians intervened when a distraught man threatened to kill himself and several of his former co-workers at an office building.

"We evacuated the office while my partner talked the guy out of killing his co-workers and committing suicide," Beckx recalled. "He told the guy I was a cop but that he could trust me and that I wanted to talk to him. I convinced him to let me check him for weapons. Thank God, he wasn't armed. He started to calm down. I promised that I wouldn't take him to jail. We got him to agree to go to a hospital without any resistance. Nobody was hurt, and after the HCA heard about the incident, they applied for more funding from Sacramento to get chronic mentally ill offenders off the streets."

Now, that type of cooperation is official. The Santa Ana PD and the HCA have joined forces in a two-year-old, state-funded project that mandates the identification of mentally ill homeless people who are at risk of being incarcerated. Beckx estimates that he and other officers and social workers have helped at least 100 people get off the streets and into treatment programs since the project began. Currently, the police department allows Beckx to spend only two and a half days per week dealing directly with the homeless; he's hoping to turn it into a full-time assignment.

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For the past two years, Beckx and Brown have cruised the streets of Santa Ana, keeping track of the city's mentally ill homeless population. Brown, who is from New York, also works with the Orange County Sheriff's Department and other city police departments on an emergency "ride-along" basis. A licensed embalmist, Brown spent a few weeks last year embalming bodies from the World Trade Center terrorist attack. His experience has come in handy at least once in dealing with the homeless.

"There was this one mentally ill homeless lady who was also an alcoholic," Beckx said. "One day, officers went to see her and noticed that she didn't look pregnant anymore."

The two cops figured the woman had just given birth and dumped her baby. While interviewing her, a detective realized that she was mentally ill. He called Beckx, who brought Brown along.

"Stephen was able to examine her and find evidence that a surgery had been performed to drain fluid from her body," Beckx said. "It turned out she had a condition that mimics pregnancy. Since she was mentally ill, the only way to know this was she had these two tiny scars from the fluid being drained. Stephen also found medical evidence that showed that she hadn't had a menstrual period in five years. That saved her a lot of turmoil and saved the police department a lot of unnecessary work."

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Photo by Nick Schou

After leaving Bruns' apartment, Beckx and Brown prowled downtown Santa Ana. They looked for shopping carts because that's the easiest way to tell a homeless person is nearby. They spotted a woman with a cart; she was smoking a cigarette on a street corner. Beckx said she has heart and lung problems but keeps smoking.

A few blocks down the street, they noticed an elderly homeless woman huddled next to her cart in a vacant storefront. Her face was a diabolical collage of mascara and lipstick. They tried to talk to her, but she kept moving in the opposite direction. They hope to gain her trust eventually, but it won't happen today. "I just want to push my cart down the street," she said.

They sought a homeless man named Aaron who is mentally ill and suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. "Everybody calls him the guy with the buckets because he just loves to clean cars," Beckx explained. "An autobody shop befriended him and let him clean cars in the parking lot. What he did was he felt he had to flood this one car with water in order to clean it. So the owner of the body shop called the police and had him arrested. The officer saw that he was ill. We talked to the district attorney's office. He agreed that the guy shouldn't go to jail and dropped the case."

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