Homeless Advocates Criticize Cops for Being Members of Private Facebook Groups

Leaked screenshots from two West San Fernando Valley groups include calls to harass homeless people

Members of two West San Fernando Valley Facebook groups have discussed using Airsoft guns, Clorox bleach, and other tactics to deter homeless individuals from living in their neighborhoods, according to dozens of screenshots leaked on Twitter, and on the sites Ktownforall and Knock L.A. on Monday. The two private groups, “Crimebusters of West Hills and Woodland Hills” and “Homeless Transient Encampments of our West Valley” (the latter of which has recently been made secret) were founded by LAPD volunteer Fern Peskin-White in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Present and former LAPD officers are members.

Many of the leaked screenshots originated from a complaint filed by activists with the Attorney General’s office in 2018, but sources have confirmed that officers are still actively posting in the groups. Woodland Hills senior lead officer Sean Dinse, who was a primary candidate in the contentious District 12 City Council special election, regularly uses the group to source information about encampments and to track specific homeless individuals. Dinse, a strong proponent of this method of policing, advocates for “preventing and deterring crime through the concept of Neighborhood Watch” on his campaign website. Former SLO Brett Rygh, who retired in 2018, remains an administrator on both pages.

Tom Booth, a West Valley homeless advocate, used to be a member of both groups. He says that when the Crimebusters page first started, the officers’ involvement seemed innocuous, and even useful. “When the first crime page started, you could make a statement and say, ‘Hey, there’s like an unusual car that’s parked down the street with four people inside, and I don’t recognize the vehicle,’” he says. “Then a senior lead officer would say, ‘Well, I’m in the area, I’ll just drive by.’ It was really kind of helpful.”

Over time, though, Booth says the focus of the Crimebusters group slowly shifted, and deterring homeless folks from the West Valley area became a primary focus, spurring the creation of the second, more specific “Transient Encampments” group. Booth said he noticed officers actively engaging in discussions in both groups, creating a dichotomy between the “good homeless” who would accept help and the “transients” who wouldn’t.

“To me it’s a really crude generalization of the process,” he says. “Some people want help today, some don’t—it could just be because they’re at a low point, or they don’t know how to ask for it. Or they don’t really know what that help includes.” He felt the officers’ engagement with the groups gave “credibility” to the growing anti-homeless sentiments that were being perpetuated there. Eventually, he says he was removed from both groups because he didn’t “share their ideology.”

As rhetoric in the groups became increasingly aggressive, activists attempted numerous times to report them to authorities. Complaints filed last year resulted in a formal LAPD review of the groups. The participating officers were not the focus of these reviews, and though they were asked not to post on the pages during the investigation, they were allowed to continue their involvement once it ceased. Investigators said that in their review they found examples of “demeaning” comments against homeless individuals in the area.

“There were comments made…making fun of them, potentially ridiculing them about their status, their lack of jobs, their physical appearance,” LAPD Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher told the L.A. Daily News. “These were things that we as a department would not do. We do not make fun of individuals, we do not allow that to occur and we hold our employees to that standard.”

In one thread from January 2018, individuals suggest using baseball bats, fire hoses, pigeon spike strips, Clorox, stink bombs, poison oak, and “sugar solution and spray” to remove homeless people from the area surrounding a restaurant. “Every insect and ant will overwhelm them, as they have overwhelmed our community,” writes one commenter. In another screenshot, a commenter suggests that a homeless person in an outdoor area should be lynched.

The list goes on, with commenters encouraging each other to throw eggs and feces at the homeless individuals, or to toss their belongings in dumpsters. And according to homeless advocates, the members of these groups are not all talk. One advocate, who asked to remain anonymous, said that area homeless individuals continue to be regularly harassed, even pelted with objects by people driving by. She also claims that at least one individual has been physically attacked by people witnesses told her are members of the groups.

As the LAPD prepares to recruit thousands of new volunteer officers into its ranks, some advocates fear that anti-homeless sentiment will only be further encouraged. In an email, LAPD spokesperson Josh Rubenstein says that they are “reviewing the activity on these social media pages to ensure there were no violations of Department policy.” He says that officers being members of the groups or “posting pertinent crime information for the purpose of public safety” would not violate department policy.

“Any indication of misconduct will be dealt with swiftly,” Rubenstein writes. “We have no tolerance for hate speech, nor will we allow any employee or volunteer to encourage criminal or violent behavior. Respect for People is a core value of the LAPD and we expect anyone who works for or with our Department to embody this principle.”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story referred to the two Facebook groups as “anti-homeless vigilante” groups. While screenshots showed rhetoric critics have described as anti-homeless and vigilante, administrator Fern Peskin-White clarified that the groups are not anti-homeless nor do they espouse vigilante behavior; she says anti-homeless speech and behavior has been openly discouraged on the page. We apologize for the flawed characterization.

A screenshot that reportedly originated on Sean Dinse’s Facebook page rather than the groups in question, has been removed from this post.

RELATED: L.A. City Council Votes Unanimously to Cite the Homeless for Sleeping in Their Vehicles

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