Garrow and Rojas: Biking While Homeless Ends in Fatal Police Shooting

On the morning of Aug. 1, two Santa Ana police officers stopped a homeless man named Richard Gene Swihart for riding his bicycle in the Civic Center plaza.

A few minutes later, Mr. Swihart was being rushed to a hospital — the officers had shot him multiple times.

On Aug. 14, Mr. Swihart died of his wounds.

The aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Mr. Swihart was captured on video and posted on YouTube, but the circumstances that led to the initial confrontation remain murky.

Police officials did not discuss the shooting at all until receiving press inquiries, then would only say that Mr. Swihart was hostile and tried to grab a gun from one of the officers. The Santa Ana Police Department did not publicly disclose that Mr. Swihart had died until Aug. 31 – 17 days after his death – and it still has not, more than five weeks after the shooting, identified the officers involved.

While the details of the shooting remain shrouded in mystery, the underlying cause is clear – Richard Gene Swihart might still be alive if it were not for an ongoing campaign to criminalize homelessness in Orange County.

Every day, police harass homeless individuals in Santa Ana and other Orange County cities for violating nuisance ordinances that criminalize everything from riding a bike to simply trying to find a place to sleep. These ordinances are designed not to ensure safety, but to sweep a vulnerable population out of public view.

Now, the situation is poised to become worse.

On the evening of Sept. 6, the Santa Ana City Council passed a resolution calling for stepped-up enforcement of code violations around the Civic Center, where an estimated 450 people are living in tents.

In the resolution, the Santa Ana City Council declared a “public health and safety crisis” at the Civic Center and called for stricter enforcement to provide a safe environment for government employees and members of the public in and around the complex.

There is indeed a crisis – but the crisis is the result of failed government policies.

Public health concerns in the Civic Center, for example, stem from the city’s refusal to provide basic services like storage space, showers, and adequate public restroom facilities for people who have no other place. Hours before the Santa Ana City Council meeting, the Orange County Board of Supervisors addressed some of those concerns by voting to fast-track the conversion of a nearby defunct transit center into a hub for temporary shelter and services.

But the larger issue of the aggressive law enforcement approach to homelessness remains. If Santa Ana is serious about enhancing the safety of people living outdoors, it must cease punishing people for being homeless.

The city must also be held accountable for the death of Mr. Swihart, and the Santa Ana Police Department must be completely transparent about the circumstances leading up to his death, starting with the release of the names of the officers involved.

SAPD has not indicated if the two officers involved are still serving on the Civic Center Patrol Unit and interacting with the same people who were present during Mr. Swihart’s shooting.

Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna told the Orange County Register that the two officers involved received special training on how to interact with people experiencing homelessness and mental illness. The death of Mr. Swihart calls into question SAPD’s policies and training. Left unanswered is whether SAPD employed de-escalation tactics before using lethal force.

The community deserves answers to these questions. Without full information about what happened in the shooting of Mr. Swihart, the public cannot determine if SAPD is operating appropriately, or hold it accountable if it is not.

According to his best friend, Mr. Swihart was an upbeat man who liked to crack jokes. One resident of the Civic Center recalled his love of chess. He was only 32 when he died. To honor his life, community groups are hosting a vigil on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 9 a.m., near the Plaza of the Flags in the Civic Center Plaza.

Eve Garrow is homelessness policy analyst and advocate and Jennifer Rojas is community engagement and policy advocate at the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal).

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

  • JS

    I have no solution for the homeless(neither do any of you).

    However I do know the more $ you spend and the more services you provide for them, the more homeless will come from surrounding areas to overwhelm said resources. LA and SF are perfect examples of that.

    SF is far left of the OC and are flooded with $ from the tech companies and property values. They have the political and social will to spend extravagantly(and do so) on the homeless. But as anyone who follows the news there crime and homeless is out of control in SF.

    Unfortunately, the best thing for the taxpayers of OC is to make life difficult for the homeless here so they’ll leave.

    • dc matthews

      Horrific! dump us? even homeless veterans and those disabled on the job and seniors? and how do you propose to make our lives MORE difficult?

  • Juan Trippe Aviation Pioneer a

    I am certain Mr. Swihart suffered from a mental health/substance use diagnosis. Not physic, I just understand this undeserved population. The police are trained to arrest, not engage the mentally ill on a daily basis. That is the job of a clinician. With the billions generated by the Mental Health Services Act, where are the clinicians? Let us begin to discuss long term hospitalizations to assist people in medication stabilization and substance use treatment. Perhaps we need a State Hospital System?

    • OCservant_Leader

      What happened to the MHSA money?? That is the Billion dollar question!

      • David Zenger

        MHSA is not to spend (except on the rare feel-good project that doesn’t do any good). It is to hoard while paying for the salaries and benfits of the OC Health Care Agency, Behavioral Services Department.

  • LFOldTimer

    Don’t the Santa Ana cops wear body cameras?

    If not, why not? That would clear up any questions of what happened.

    If there is a video release it to the public and let us be the judge.

    If we had a transparent government that’s the way it would work.

    But we don’t – so it they will hide it.

    • David Zenger

      No doubt he was reaching for his “waistband.”

      • LFOldTimer

        Beware of any man making a “furtive movement” off camera.

  • Mr. Wrestling III

    How is it against the law to ride a bike?

    • David Zenger

      10 will get you 5 the DA discovers the bike rider was reaching for his “waistband.”

      • OCservant_Leader

        Perhaps he was also preaching the “Good Word” and looked “intensely” at a potential weapon ?

        No wonder he had to be shot.

        • David Zenger

          Yes. Well, handcuffed at least.

  • Antonio Montana

    I’m curious to know what the solution is to this homeless crisis in Santa Ana. You complain about the police enforcing the laws of the state of California and City of Santa Ana. You say that the government created the mess by failing to provide storage areas, showers and restrooms; yet fail to hold those living in the civic center accountable. Where do you propose the government divert monies from to fund these proposed storage areas, showers and restrooms? Should they be taken from school and parks (children)? Should they be taken from public safety in a city that already went with the much slower services of OCFA to save a few bucks and is 100 cops short of where they should be? Perhaps as a member of the ACLU, you and your organization are willing to reach into your deep pockets and fund these proposed facilities you have dreamed up. Have you ever walked through the Santa Ana civic center during a busy court day? How about at night? I’m sure you will have a much different opinion if you had to do so as a juror in the morning or citizen trying to walk to work at night. And in no way am I saying everyone in the civic center is a criminal; but many of them are there because they choose not to work and would rather be in an area where drugs are readily accessible and there are no responsibilities as a productive citizen. Maybe you should ask your fellow journalist from UCI Irvine who attempted to interview homeless people in the civic center and was beaten and robbed by those same people he was trying to be a voice for. Have you ever been in a fight with a person who is trying to take a weapon they can kill you with? Do you think if you were that officer you wouldn’t want your partner to defend your life and shoot the person trying to take your gun? Do you really think any officer in America wants to be involved in a shooting in front of hundreds of people with cameras who have no idea what their job entails…in broad daylight? The ACLU makes millions of dollars every year sitting at desks and defending people or challenging agencies they have zero knowledge about. I don’t believe anyone deserves to die for being homeless; but if you choose to fight the police and try to take their gun, you absolutely deserve to be shot. You offer only judgement without any knowledge of facts. How about maybe offering a solution…a real solution.

    • OC curly gurl

      Bravo Mr. Montana! You are so right! The ACLU weighs in on something they know nothing about and make inflammatory, sweeping, and inaccurate generalizations such as there is an ‘… ongoing campaign to criminalize homelessness in Orange County’ and that Santa Ana has an ‘…aggressive law enforcement approach to homelessness’. NOTHING could be further from the truth! As a Civic Center worker and a witness to the events that occur there daily I challenge the ACLU to provide a fact – any fact – that supports your baseless accusations. Every day I see SAPD officers interact with mentally ill and drugged-up homeless people. They treat them with dignity and they are not aggressive toward them. In fact, the homeless call SAPD when they are victimized by other homeless people! Has the ACLU ever thought about that? Has it occurred to you that the dangerous situation isn’t that the police are there but that a lack of order exists because of the homeless people whose undisciplined lifestyles have been allowed to run rampant because of organizations like the ACLU? And as for the officers hassling Mr. Swihart for ‘riding his bicycle in the Civic Center plaza …’ that isn’t true. There are homeless people constantly riding bikes in and around the plaza and they usually aren’t stopped by the officers who are on the scene. I would venture to say that there may have been another reason that the attention was focused on Swihart that day. Perhaps one of the other homeless people had been victimized by him, or maybe he was wanted for previous crimes he had committed. I witnessed the events of that day and I can tell you that SAPD DID employ ‘de-escalation tactics’ before shots were fired. It was Swihart himself who escalated the situation. Maybe he learned that from the ACLU ‘activists’…..

      • David Zenger

        He was reaching for his “waistband.”