The Force Is With Him
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.
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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."
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."
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.
* * *
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."
* * *
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."
Beckx and Brown have been trying to get Aaron off the streets for the past three months. "We've made a lot of progress with him," Beckx said. "Three months ago, he used to walk away from us without saying a word. Now he expects to see us at certain times and lets us know when we're late. And we try not to be late because we are trying to build trust."
Aaron has also been arrested for aggressive panhandling, camping, littering and public urination. "Our goal is to impact those areas," Beckx continued. "But we're really trying to get people like him into a clinic for treatment. So we'll talk to them and touch them. A lot of officers have gotten over the barrier of touching homeless people—giving them a handshake or a pat on the back. It goes a long way."
Photo by Nick Schou
Brown pulled into a few gas stations and then spotted Aaron at a service station, washing a white car. He and Beckx jumped out of the car and greeted Aaron, who seemed glad to see them. He was dressed in a dirty T-shirt and shorts. Beckx made him promise to stay put while he and Brown went to the nearby Mental Health Association multiservice center to find him a clean pair of pants and socks. The center provides homeless people with programs to combat substance abuse, find jobs and housing, and have fun.
Inside, roughly 50 homeless people played pool and made telephone calls while waiting for their clothes to get cleaned or to take a shower. Several of them waved at Beckx while he waited for someone to find the socks and pants. "Who let the fuzz in here?" one woman asked, smiling. Another woman pointed at Beckx and told her friend, "If you ever get chased by the cops, run to him. He'll bring you straight here instead of to jail."
Another woman walked up and told Beckx that she'd been in a room-and-board for three months, after completing a sober-living program. Beckx seemed delighted. He started talking about a homeless man who was living in a park whom he convinced to voluntarily agree to medical treatment and shelter. The treatment came too late to prevent the man from dying of terminal cancer.
"But when we visited him at the room-and-board, he looked at us, and for the first time, we had a real conversation. He smiled and said he really liked sleeping in a bed. That's where he died—in his own bed, and in his own room, instead of us finding his remains out in the bushes by the riverbed."
* * *
On their way to give the socks and pants to Aaron, Beckx and Brown came upon an abandoned-looking blue van in a parking lot next to an active construction site where an earthdigger dropped big chunks of concrete in a pile. A woman sat in the open doorway of the van, smoking a cigarette. As they pulled up to the van, a squad car arrived. The officer checked the van for weapons and drugs but didn't find any.
Photo by Nick Schou
Beckx and Brown interviewed the woman. She said she'd been homeless for years and had been living with a friend in the van for at least four months. She has children somewhere in Lake Elsinore. They're homeless, too. She used to have an apartment in Santa Ana and entertained dreams of working at the Chamber of Commerce, helping tourists. She had a prescription for lithium to treat her schizophrenia—but she hadn't been taking her pills.
Beckx and Brown convinced her to visit her psychiatrist in Fullerton. "We have a tracking system for mentally ill homeless people, so we know if they've had contact with a particular clinic," Brown explained. "She's been to a psychiatrist in Fullerton already, so we're going to take her there right now rather than have her go through a whole new set of people in Santa Ana."
While she brushed her hair in preparation for the visit, Brown jogged across the street to give Aaron his new clothes—and to tell him to wait there until they returned from Fullerton, so they could take him to the center for a shower.
* * *
Beckx estimates that he has known at least 10 homeless people who have died in the past several years. Some perished on the streets; others in shelters. He doesn't know what killed many of them because he never reads the autopsy reports. But he still has photographs he took of all the people who died, as well as those he has been able to help keep alive.
He also still has the four-year-old snapshot of the homeless man with the tumor who changed his life forever. At his office in the police department's Fourth Street substation, Beckx pulled a folder from his desk and proudly pointed at the photographs he has taken of various homeless people he has gotten to know over the years.
One woman had been homeless in downtown Santa Ana for 20 years. "She was one of the first people we assessed," he said. "We watched her long enough to convince the mental-health people to take her to the hospital. She was later placed in a shelter home. She has since recovered her physical health and doesn't want to be homeless any more."
Inside another folder was a photograph of a homeless woman who didn't make it. Monica Williams, who went by the nickname "Indiana," lived near Santa Ana's rail tracks. One day, Beckx and his partner begged her to let them take her to a hospital. She refused. In retrospect, Beckx wishes he had been more persistent. The following day, a passenger train struck her while she was pushing her shopping cart across the tracks. She died instantly.
"If I knew then what I know now," he said ruefully while gazing at her photograph, "I could have saved her life."
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