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Why Homeless Knife Attacks Have Increased in Santa Monica

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By Jorge Casuso

March 16, 2023 -- A dangerous mix of legal knives, illegal drugs and lenient State laws are likely driving a surge in stabbings among the homeless in Santa Monica, according to police.

The stabbing of a City worker in Palisades Park Wednesday morning was the latest of at least nine knife attacks reported by police in less than five months, almost all involving homeless assailants ("Homeless Man Stabs City Worker in Palisades Park," March 16, 2023).

Swiss Army Knife
Samuri swordMachete
Among the knives it is legal to carry in California are (from top left) Swiss army knife, dagger, kukri, machete and Samuri sword.

"We haven't seen a homeless person without a knife for utility or protection," said Lt. Erika Aklufi, a spokesperson for the Santa Monica Police Department.

Whether it's a pocket knife with a three-inch blade or a Samuri sword, it is legal to carry most types of knives in California if they are carried openly, Aklufi said.

Under State law, it is legal to own and carry folding pocket knives and fixed blade knives, which include knives used for hunting and tactical combat, Bowie-style blades, daggers, machetes, kukris (a type of short sword) and swords.

The only exceptions are switchblades and automatic knives and ballistic (throwing) knives. It is also illegal, in most cases, to carry a concealed pocket knife.

"We have someone with a Samurai sword," Aklufi said. "He'll kind of swing it around (in the park) as if doing Ta'i chi. He never threatens anyone, and it's entirely legal."

While knives are mainly used for utility purposes and protection, they can become lethal weapons when the person carrying it is mentally ill or under the influence of methamphetamines or both, Aklufi said.

According to SMPD crime data, arrests for narcotics possession -- which are typically proactive -- spiked from 123 in 2021 to 228 last year.

In the past, those who suffered from mental health problems often drank, said Aklufi, who became a Santa Monica police officer in 2007.

"Before it was drinks," she said. "Now you bring meth into the picture, and that was the downfall."

That is especially the case if the person is mentally ill. "You have a lot of bi-polar and schizophrenic people on the streets," Aklufi said. "You hand them meth, and it's a completely different scenario."

When a mentally ill person is arrested, they are typically taken to a hospital and placed under a doctor's care, which in most cases involves medicating and releasing the patient.

"Sometimes they're back in the city before we are," Aklufi said. "Doctors will give them a medication that will calm them down, then put them out on the street. It's extremely frustrating for us."

A 2019 analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that some 67 percent of homeless individuals in La County had either a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder.

The analysis, which was based on more than 4,000 questionnaires taken as part of the 2019 LA County homeless count, found that "substance abuse affects 46 percent of those living on the streets -- more than three times the rate previously reported."

Mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, affects 51 percent of those living on the streets, according to the analysis.

Also contributing to a rise in knife attacks, are two laws approved by California voters in 2014 and 2016 that police officials say have created a revolving door for many repeat offenders.

Proposition 47, approved in 2014, classifies “non-serious, nonviolent crimes" as misdemeanors instead of felonies, unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes.

The law also allowed the re-sentencing of an estimated 10,000 inmates serving prison sentences for the crimes reduced to misdemeanors under the law.

Santa Monica voters approved the measure with nearly 80 percent of the vote, compared to voters across the state, who approved the measure with 60 percent of the vote.

Two years later, nearly 82 percent of Santa Monica voters backed Proposition 57, which hastened the release of some non-violent offenders from prisons, compared to 68 percent of voters statewide.

A 2018 analysis of police and court records by The Lookout found that a revolving-door court system put many violators quickly back on the street ("Suspects in Santa Monica's Most Violent Crimes Were Repeat Offenders," March 13, 2018).

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