Tucson Homeless Accuse Police of Bias For Drug Arrests

By McCarton Ackerman 03/10/15

The high rates of drug and alcohol abuse among the homeless has made them easy targets for arrest.

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After police in Tucson, Ariz., arrested six homeless men in a drug sting around their camp, many homeless residents in the city are claiming they’re being unfairly targeted by police.

The timing of the arrests was seen as suspect because the city is set to ask a federal judge next week to overturn a ruling that allows homeless residents to reside downtown in “dream pod” boxes. But after police announced the arrests last week, which included the homeless movement’s spokesperson, Jon McLane, some of the residents have accused the police of setting them up.

“What homeless guy, if you come up and offer him 20 bucks, isn't going to sell you something?” asked Roy Trout. Ibrahaim Mubarak also accused the police of bias in their arrests. “People do drugs whether they're living outside or inside, so they [police] should be doing the same thing to the people that's inside also.”

But Tucson police have stood by their work and said they’re obligated to respond to calls from citizens reporting concerns. Undercover officers reported buying drugs from people in and around the downtown park area 12 times in recent weeks.

“We're getting people that are walking around downtown, business owners and people who are doing business downtown who are saying what are you going to do about this?” said Tucson Police Sgt. Pete Dugan. “'We're watching sales happen, we're watching people use. We can't sit there and not address that.”

A report conducted in 2003 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 38% of homeless people had alcohol dependency and 26% abused drugs. The same report also stated that substance abuse was the largest cause of homelessness.

A separate study published in February 2013 by JAMA Internal Medicine found that almost 17% of the deaths of 28,000 homeless adults studied from 2003 to 2008 came from drug overdoses. This was also the most common manner of death among the homeless between ages 25 and 44, accounting for nearly one-third of the tragedies. Among these overdose deaths, 81% of them involved opioids.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.