By Mike Rhodes
The Community Alliance newspaper has obtained body cam video from the Fresno Police Department (FPD) Homeless Task Force (HTF) that shows what happened during a homeless encampment “cleanup” earlier this year. This is raw footage from the perspective of police officers as they threaten the homeless with arrest and eventually arrest Lewis Brown when he did not leave fast enough.
To put the incident into context, the City of Fresno has passed a no camping ordinance and created a special unit within the FPD, the HTF. It is the HTF’s job to make sure that any time a homeless encampment emerges, the residents are forced to “move on.”
When a homeless encampment is cleared out, the homeless are told to take the property they want to keep with them. What they can’t carry away is either stored for 90 days (where it can be reclaimed) or is bulldozed and hauled away in garbage trucks.
In this video, you can hear the police telling homeless people to leave a vacant lot owned by the City of Fresno and if they don’t leave they will be arrested. The video shows police officers talking to Brown, telling him to leave, and when he does not move fast enough several officers take him down.
Brown can be heard saying as the police approached, “I’m leaving right now,” and when his face was pushed into the ground he cried out, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” When Brown is picked up by officers, his face is covered in blood; he was put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital. The Fresno County District Attorney’s office has charged Brown with trespassing and unlawful lodging.
The officers involved in this Feb. 21, 2020, incident were Miller, Diaz, Quisenberry and Holden. In Sgt. Troy Miller’s incident report, his view of what happened is that Brown “had been previously warned he could not camp on the vacant lot located at 410 S. West Ave. While trying to arrest S-Brown for trespassing, he began fighting with officers and refused to put both his hands behind his back. During the struggle S-Brown received several small scratches.”
The video, which shows the incident from several different angles, makes it clear what happened. You can draw your own conclusion about whether Brown “began fighting with officers” or if he was the victim of police brutality.
There was a lawsuit filed by six homeless people in Boise, Idaho, in 2009 (Martin v. City of Boise) who claimed that it was cruel and unusual for the police to arrest people for being homeless. They contended that Boise did not have enough shelter beds and that homeless people had no option other than to sleep outside. The court agreed and declared that if there are no homeless shelter beds available the police can’t arrest someone for being homeless. The FPD HTF did not ask Brown if he would like to have a bed to sleep in that night.
Brown has an attorney who is defending him in court. The attorney, Kevin Little, wrote in a brief defending Brown, quoting the Boise decision, “So long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in a jurisdiction than the number of available beds in shelters, the jurisdiction cannot prosecute homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public. That is, as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
Fresno does not have enough shelter space for all of the homeless in this community. The brief also states that “Fresno’s own report confirms that in 2020 there were at least three times as many homeless as there was available shelter space.”
The trial is expected to begin in early December.
Mike Rhodes is a member of the Community Alliance newspaper editorial board and the author of a book about the homeless in Fresno, Dispatches from the War Zone. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.