One of the most egregious ways in which the City of Los Angeles terrorizes and oppresses homeless human beings is with so-called encampment sweeps, in which City officials, guarded by police, swoop in and confiscate and dispose of people’s possessions, including in many cases life-essential materials such as medicine, official papers, tools, tents, bicycles, and so on.
This appalling practice has inspired a long chain of successful federal lawsuits against the City, the most recent one of which1 was filed on July 18, 2019.2 Human rights activists, for instance to name just a couple Streetwatch and Services Not Sweeps, have been trying for years to get advance notice of sweeps for many purposes, not least among which are monitoring and outreach to the victims.
Since 2016 I have also been trying to get the City to cough up advance notice via the California Public Records Act. I had one early success, thus proving that the concept at least could work, but since then the City has mostly ignored me. And even on one occasion worse than ignored me, they illegally denied me entry into the Public Works Building, thus preventing me from seeing advance schedules.3 I wrote about my progress a couple more times, once in October 2016 and again in November of that year. There haven’t been enough new developments since then for a post,4 until today, that is.
One of the key strategies in public records activism is making requests for the same materials from every possible agency that might hold records. This increases the odds of getting a complete set of responsive material in the face of obstruction.5 I have been working on getting access to sweep scheduling materials through LA Sanitation, who has ignored me since 2017, through LAPD, which is slightly better but still routinely takes up to a year to produce material, through various Council offices, the office of the Mayor, and so on.
But for some reason it never occurred to me before May 2019 to request records from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which is also deeply implicated in the process of planning and carrying out sweeps. But request them then I did, and last week they released about 5% of a promised 16GB6 collection of emails between LAHSA operatives involved with sweeps and various complicit parties at the City of Los Angeles, and you can get your copies here on Archive.Org.
In order to accomplish my main goal, which is to force the City of Los Angeles to give public advance notice of encampment sweeps, it’s necessary to gain as much technical understanding as possible of the sweep scheduling process. One reason for this is that the Public Records Act requires requests to “reasonably [describe] an identifiable record or records.”7 And, based on this requirement, a popular delaying tactic among responding agencies is to pretend not to know what’s being requested.
In order therefore to minimize the chance of this happening with sweep schedules it’s necessary to know precisely which kinds of documents, their precise names, and so on, contain the information. So these newly released emails from LAHSA are, by the very design of my request, highly technical. There’s nothing lurid here, but there is a great deal of good solid information on how the various components of the sweep scheduling process are coordinated. This is essential if somewhat tedious information. Tangentially to my main purpose, though, these records read en masse are anything but tedious.
They paint a convincing and tragically familiar picture of a bunch of ordinary public officials carrying out what from their point of view is a routine series of routine tasks — entirely without consequence, just doing their jobs — but which from the point of view of people living on the streets, the targets of the official activity, is world-shaking life-destroying state-sponsored lethal violence and aggression. The story of these utterly orthogonal points of view, of their historical precedents, is not the story I’m telling here, but it’s by far the most important story to be told about encampment sweeps. It’s being told by accomplished lawyers and activists via civil trials at the First Street Federal Courthouse.8
So let’s look at a single day in the encampment sweep scheduling process as reflected in these emails.9 The day is June 4, 2019. The record begins on May 31, 2019 when LA Sanitation sent this email to a huge list of interested recipients.10 The body of the email contains a text version of the tentative schedule for June 4. This is immensely important as LA Sanitation has claimed continually in the past that they do not have schedules in advance.11
Of equal or greater interest are the five attachments. These expose one of the essential inner mechanisms of the sweep scheduling system. Note that the links are to PDFs of the attachments regardless of what the link text might say. Four of the five attachments are MS Word documents, and in those cases I have also provided links to the originals. It’s essential to have these, not least for the sake of the metadata.
★ CD 13 6.4 (1).docx — This consists of 6 pages from the Online Encampment Authorization system, one for each of the 6 encampments in CD13 scheduled to be swept on June 4. Here’s the first page as an image so you can see what information these have in them. There’s essential information in there, including the names of the people who signed off on the sweep and, maybe more importantly, the dates.
This encampment was signed off on on May 12, almost three weeks before it came up for a sweep. That’s at least how long the pipeline is, then. Here’s a link to the original Word document. One important thing to be learned there is that although the email was sent out on May 31, this document was created on May 30, which is five days before the sweeps were set to be carried out.
The next event took place on June 3, 2019 when Salvador Rosales sent out an email response to the same recipients with the terse message: “Hello all, Please see the attached posting reports for Tuesday June 4th, 2019.” And, as above, it’s the attachments that are really interesting. Again, these all came to me as Word documents and, again, I exported them as PDFs and also provide links to the originals.
★ 6-2-19 CD14 OHS Central Division Posting.docx — Here is a link to the original Word document. This is really, really important. It consists of scouting reports from actual City investigators on the encampments to be swept. The investigations took place on June 2, which shows that there’s another intermediate level of confirmation between the sign-off, which in this case took place on May 12, the inclusion in the May 31 email from LA Sanitation, and the actual final confirmation, which went out on the morning of June 4 and which is discussed below.
These reports include eyewitness current descriptions of the encampments, photographs of the posted notices, and estimates of necessary time and personnel for carrying out the sweep. In this case the investigators report thusly:
On Sunday, June 2, 2019, Environmental Compliance Inspectors S. Cruz and a Solids ML conducted a homeless encampment (HE) survey for the above district and posted areas for clean-up on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Locations with homeless encampments were posted on both sides of the street and adjoining blocks where applicable. Additional photographs taken are not included in this report.
Approximately 3.5 hours of total cleanup time should be allowed for 06/04/19. The following resources will be required: One WPD team, one LASAN Solids team, one Clean Harbors Environmental Services team.
And finally the preliminary part of the process of scheduling encampment sweeps for June 4, 2019 closes with this email from LA Sanitation, sent on June 4 at 7:17 AM with one attachment: Final Confirmation Sheet – Conf Sheet 6_4.pdf. And yes, it’s different from the preliminary version from May 31, but it’s not that different.
So that’s the story, or as much of it as I know so far, of how a sweep gets scheduled. I didn’t get this material until, like I said, last week, so it’s a long way from the advance information that activists need to get to the point, which isn’t to interpret the world in various ways. But, also like I said, these records are an essential part of the process of forcing the City to give us that advance information. For various as-yet-unrevealed reasons, I believe we are getting close to achieving that goal, by the way!
Image of The Philosopher King is ©2019 MichaelKohlhaas.Org and there is this little slab of dot freaking dot dot dot!
- Obviously this one can’t yet be labeled “successful,” but it certainly will be. In fact, the City will settle it, just you wait and see. They already know they’re going to lose. Already. Know. It.
- I will be writing more on this very, very soon.
- Wheels are turning with respect to this particular matter but, as I am sure you know, such wheels turn really damn slowly.
- Although I’m still working hard on it, and there will almost certainly be some huge developments to report fairly soon. Much, much huger than the one I am reporting on today!
- As you know if you’ve made requests, or even just followed my progress in the blog, agencies can and will be incredibly obstructionist. They will fail to search and then lie about it. They will search and find and then claim the most incredibly bogus exemptions. In some cases they make up exemptions or just refuse access to records. They delete records, they lie and say they deleted records, and so on.
- At §6253(b).
- It may well end up being told over again in criminal courts or tribunals. If not on a local or national level perhaps on an international. Let’s freaking hope so!
- Keep in mind that this is not a complete picture of a single day. There is information missing from the emails I’ve gotten so far. It may turn up in the rest of the release or in response to other still-pending requests. In particular, despite the fact that I obtained this material from LAHSA, there’s nothing much in here about LAHSA’s unique role in the process. I’m hopeful that I’ll get records related to this particular topic eventually if not soon.
- The recipient list itself is immensely important information and will inform many future requests. Like I said, it’s essential to make overlapping requests to every possible agency that might have the records one seeks.
- They’ve also claimed that the advance schedules that they do have are drafts and are therefore exempt from production under §6254(a) of the CPRA, which lets agencies withhold [p]reliminary drafts, notes, or interagency or intra-agency memoranda that are not retained by the public agency in the ordinary course of business, if the public interest in withholding those records clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure. This argument is totally bogus for a number of reasons. First, obviously these putatively draft schedules are in fact retained, otherwise why are they having to even claim that they’re exempt? The fact that they’re retained means, by the plain language of the statute, that they’re not exempt. Second, even if it were true that they weren’t retained, the public interest in seeing these schedules, even in draft form, is cosmically high. There is no plausible scenario under which there’s any public interest at all in withholding them, let alone a public interest that clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure. But, bad as it is, that’s the argument they’re using.