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Santa Ana police reach out to homeless through training program

July 19, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Southern California's homeless population has grown over the years, and that poses unique problems for police. But the Santa Ana Police Department is reaching out to people on the street with the help of a new training program.

The fedreally-funded pilot course teaches officers to identify symptoms of mental illness. The class also covers how to approach mentally ill people and how to diffuse potentially dangerous situations.

Greater awareness comes after the murders of four homeless men in Orange County. Itzcoatl Ocampo, a former Marine, awaits trial in the murders.

Santa Ana police will often patrol the city's civic center area just after 5 a.m.

"I would say about 90 percent of the people that we see out here are familiar," said Officer Alex Partida.

One woman, only identified as Stephanie, has been homeless for two years.

"She has her ups and downs. She's got a mental illness. There are some days she's a lot better than others," said Partida.

Police have cited her in the past for illegal camping on a certain street in Santa Ana. In her mind, Stephanie believes her family owns the street, so she has a right to be there and she refuses to go to a shelter.

Still, police must warn her and dozens of others to leave the site before people show up for work.

Police say at least a third of the people they encounter suffer some form of mental illness.

"Definitely the economic situation, the downturn in '09. I saw a dramatic increase in calls for mental health services," said Santa Ana Officer Randy Beckx.

A year ago, six Santa Ana police officers, including a sergeant and a corporal, started consistently patrolling the civic center's two square miles to get to know the people on the street. Police try to refer them to services that can help, but it's not easy.

"A lot of times they don't want to leave," said Partida.

During an encounter with one homeless man, the skills the officers learned are put to use. They calm the seemingly agitated man, who is also a registered sex offender. It's a reminder of the potential dangers, with more than 150 people on the street and several new faces being added every week.

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