Monday Morning Thoughts: Chief Pytel on the Ordinance and Police in the Big Picture of Homelessness

Chief Pytel speaks at the Davis Chamber panel in October

Those who have been advocating for police-based solutions to homeless-related problems should listen carefully to the words of Police Chief Darren Pytel.

Back in May, the chief explained that they cannot simply arrest their way out of the problem.

The issue is complex and, while police are often called, Chief Pytel explained that “we have to deal with people’s immediate safety concerns.”  But, even having said that, “there may or may not be anything that we can do.

“A lot of people say, why don’t you just arrest them,” he said.  “We’re finding over and over that that’s not necessarily the answer,” especially if “mental illness or drugs and addiction are the primary issues.

“So just making an arrest under the current criminal justice system is not going to change that behavior,” he explained.

In November, Chief Pytel made it clear that if violence, threats, drunkenness or people passed out are present, the police can intervene.  But, in most of those cases, it is catch and release.  In
other words, the police will deal with an immediate safety threat, but the long term solution is not coming from police action, it is the systems in place and the services.

In November, Chief Pytel explained that as a result of a Supreme Court case, local jurisdictions are more limited in what they can do to prevent panhandling, as they found that it is protected speech.

“The speech used to panhandle in a non-aggressive way is protected speech,” he said.  “So essentially we can’t have regulations, ordinances, or laws that just prohibit someone from (asking for money).”

Therefore, most panhandling ordinances that deal with panhandling or panhandling in certain locations are going to be invalid.  The chief did say there were some things we can do “unrelated to speech, dealing with conduct.  We can of course regulate types of conduct that can be dangerous.”

In a long comment on Tuesday night, the chief explained, “It’s complicated.  Every situation is going to be a little bit different.  Most of them are challenging.”

He said about state law, “State law provisions (for) shouting at people and challenging each other to a fight, that’s currently already illegal.  You can’t do that already under state law.  Under state law, that type of crime, because it’s a misdemeanor, has to be committed in our presence in order for us to make an arrest.”

As a result, one of their proposals is to have administrative remedies rather than just criminal ones.  “Administrative remedies don’t have to follow the same laws for arrest that we do for criminal statutes,” he said.  “In other words, you can handle them as nuisance type behavior and engage in administrative citations.  Still hold people accountable, still offer restorative practices in Neighborhood Court, but the formalities of having to make an arrest for a criminal statute are not the same.”

He said that the ordinance helps “clearly spell out what some of the aggressive conduct actually is.”  He explained that it’s currently “illegal to accost somebody in a public place for the solicitation of alms.  That statute has been held to be constitutional because it deals with conduct and not actual words.  However, nobody in here is able to describe what to accost somebody actually means.  It’s a term of art, it’s an old term, that nobody even uses anymore.  It’s difficult to describe what that type of behavior actually is.”

Therefore, there is a danger in that definition.  “If someone approaches someone and asks them for money, for some people that’s accosting,” he explained.  “For some people, if the person is following them and engaging in a physical act, that may be accosting to them.

“So what we tried to do is carefully define some of the behavior that is really problematic,” he continued.

Here is the key.  He said, “Ultimately one of the questions that I’m expecting to ask is do we really think that this is going to solve some of the problems downtown?”

He pointed out it is common for the council and state legislature to pass the law and the vast majority of the people voluntarily obey the law “even in circumstances that most people wouldn’t think that they would.”   He said, “Law enforcement, one of the things we rely on is what we call voluntary compliance.  The vast majority of the people voluntarily comply with the law.”

He said, “In this particular case, panhandling and accosting people and saying that these words are challenging to a fight, is somewhat difficult for everybody to recognize.  What kind of language are we talking about?  And what are some of the common things that may violate that statute?”

In his view, “having some actual written rules which describe what is not okay, I think is going to be very helpful.”

The chief noted that the vast majority of people that they deal with “are somewhat cooperative.”  He added, “They want to know what the rules are, they tell us all the time, tell me what the rules are and I’ll obey the rules,” he said.  He acknowledged some won’t obey the rules and he said they would have to hold them accountable by citing them through the criminal or administrative system.  “Most people once they’re told those are the rules… I think there will be a lot of people who will go, I get it.”

He said they can do that as it “still leave lots of channels for people to go out and lawfully panhandle.  There’s a way for people to do that without offending the senses of other people.”

Bottom line: “I do think that the provisions are helpful.”

I illustrate this point because yesterday I made the point that without the Social Services Tax, the city will not have the resources they need to address issues of this sort.  Some feel that the Davis Police Department can play this role.  But that’s not how the chief feels.

Chief Pytel on Tuesday, while supportive of the ordinance, acknowledges that it will not solve all of the problems and make all of the problems go away.

For him, “That’s going to take a combination of a lot of different things that are going on to make happen.”  He talked about the immediate importance of the work of Ryan Collins, the homeless coordinator.

He noted that there are people who want to be homeless and those who have fallen into the situation, “who are just looking for a means into housing.”

But housing and services cost money and, without that money, it is going to be hard to get a wrap on the problem.  It is clear that the chief does not see the police as “the” solution, but rather he sees them as part of a much bigger and more complex picture.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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29 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Chief Pytel on the Ordinance and Police in the Big Picture of Homelessness”

  1. Keith O

    I illustrate this point because yesterday I made the point that without the Social Services Tax, the city will not have the resources they need to address issues of this sort.  Some feel that the Davis Police Department can play this role.

    That’s not how I remember the conversation coming down, but that’s how you chose to spin it.

    Why are you rehashing the Social Services Tax when the council has already stated that it’s off the table?

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          In other words – nowhere. That’s fine, you just need to understand that what Chief Pytel wants is going to take money and resources we don’t currently have.

  2. Richard C

    There is a lot of talk about trying to control the behavior of panhandlers, but the one thing I have not seen is any talk about the people that are giving cash to the panhandlers.  What would happen if the business community and the City started a program to encourage people to not give cash to panhandlers, but rather to contribute to local charities?

    Personally, I never give cash to panhandlers because I know that it just encourages more panhandling.  I’ve also noticed that a lot of the panhandlers are consuming cigarettes  and alcohol and I don’t feel like feeding these particular habits.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      There was a big discussion of this at the council meeting last January, at the Chamber walk about last may, and the Chamber forum last October. There is talk about ways to get people to give money in other ways other than directly. This is a big subject of discussion.

    2. Richard C

      There is talk about ways to get people to give money in other ways other than directly. This is a big subject of discussion.

      I’m glad to hear that.  I do hope that some action takes place to discourage people from giving cash to panhandlers.

    3. Dave Hart92

      Whoever, Richard C is, he’s got it right.  Giving cash to panhandlers is the wrong way to go.  It’s no different than giving money to 501(c)(3) organizations that are never satisfied.  What the whole panhandling issue is really about is what we have come to recognize as Christian guilt.  People who don’t feel guilty about not giving cash to people on the street can’t understand why it isn’t a simple matter of creating rules that the homeless and whoever else understands.  Seems like the homeless who recognize this are smarter than most of the highly educated in our community.  What we decide to do as a community for the homeless is entirely independent of what we decide to do about the issue of panhandling in the downtown.

  3. Ken A

    We don’t need “police-based solutions to HOMELESS-related problems” we just need the police to focus on “CRIME-related problems”.

    If a “rich guy” with a million dollar home was stealing bikes, dumping trash amd leaving porn in parks for kids to find I’m sure the local police would deal with it.

    For some reason the local police don’t seem to care (or are told to ignore it) when the “homeless” without homes steal bikes, dump trash and leave porn in the park for kids to find…

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      And don’t forget, most of the behavior is not arrestable because it doesn’t take place in the view of the police anyway. So then what?

      1. Keith O

        David, most crimes don’t take place in police view.  What’s your point? Our cops are hired to do a job, whether rich or homeless the laws need to be enforced.

      2. Keith O

        This whole article was spawned from a comment yesterday where the person said they had people camping at a park close to their house.  They stated that if things were to get out of hand that they would call the cops and get them removed.  David, are you saying they don’t have the right to call the cops and get rowdy squatters removed from a park close to their house where their kids play? That’s the cop’s job, to enforce the law.

    2. Tia Will


      For some reason the local police don’t seem to care (or are told to ignore it) when the “homeless” without homes steal bikes, dump trash and leave porn in the park for kids to find…”

      I really take exception to this comment. I live on J Street, 1/2 block from the tracks which is an area where at times the homeless tend to hang out and occasionally build small encampments. The police have always been responsive on the occasions when they have been alerted to a dangerous developing situation and have acted to resolve the issue. Because I am in the downtown daily on foot, I frequently witness interactions between the police and the homeless. This is not a matter of neglect, either deliberate or inadvertent on the part of our Davis police. It is about the limitations of what they can do within current law and current funding.

      For those who do not want to pay a tax, or otherwise contribute to helping the homeless and by doing so to also help those whose life style is adversely affected by the homeless, I would ask, why do you think that you are entitled to something for which you are not willing to pay, or contribute in other ways to solving ?


      1. Ken A

        I’m wondering if Tia is aware that just about a half mile down the tracks from J street are a bunch of little encampments/mini superfund sites where the homeless have been living (and dumping trash, stolen stuff and human waste) since the CHP kicked them out of the camps along 113 back in November.  I’m wondering if she thinks the cops would ignore her behavior for even a single day if she started dumping trash, stolen stuff and defecating in front of her home on J Street.

        When some South Davis parents approached the police about a South Davis homeless guy leaving porn out for kids to find in Pioneer park the cops just rolled their eyes and said: “sounds like Pepe the Pervert is at it again”.  Im wondering if Tia thinks the cops would do the same thing if a parent called about a NDE teacher doing the same thing (and if the cops would have a catchy nickname for the teacher that described his illegal behavior).

  4. Jeff M

    The alternative to the tax and spend solution is the community-sourced solution in which local business contributes.  Davis does not have enough local business.

    1. Tia Will


      Davis does not have enough local business.”

      Or maybe not all of the existing businesses are aware of or willing to contribute to an ongoing community based solution. Wasn’t it you who advocated for an Albuquerque like homeless to work program, apparently unaware that such a program is currently operative in Davis ?


      1. Don Shor

        Perhaps Davis Downtown (formerly DDBA) could add a voluntary assessment on the charge downtown property owners and businesses pay. They’re already assessed and billed by the city, so there wouldn’t be any additional paperwork at the city’s end. There actually over a hundred businesses downtown.

          1. Don Shor

            to keep the homeless moving along

            Moving along to where? That’s the whole problem with your many suggestions over the last few days. So Atherton somehow keeps them out of Atherton. Does that solve the homeless problem, or just make it Burlingame’s homeless problem? They don’t cease to exist just because you’ve moved them along.

        1. Ken A

          Most homeless that would have been in Atherton end up in Redwood city.  Like Atherton Burlingame has few if any homeless and they probably end up in San Mateo.  The people in their $10mm Atherton homes and $2mm Burlingame homes make more of an effort than the people that live in $1mm Redwood City and San Mateo homes and they have less homeless people and less crime then the neighboring cities.

          I’m wondering if Don locks the doors of his car, home or business?  Locking the doors will not “solve” the crime problem but it will probably move it to another car, home or business (it is a fact that people who don’t lock their cars, homes or business are victims of crime more often than people that lock the doors).

          1. Don Shor

            Most homeless that would have been in Atherton end up in Redwood city. Like Atherton Burlingame has few if any homeless and they probably end up in San Mateo.

            Ok, Ken — does that solve the problem? Is your answer to homelessness to just move the people elsewhere?
            As to your analogy: theft is a crime of opportunity. Homelessness is not a crime.

  5. Ken A

    It is not the job of a city to “solve” the problems of crime, homelessness, spousal abuse or racism.  We just need to let people know that as a city we won’t tolerate criminals, the homeless who violate local laws, wife beaters or racists and they will go elsewhere (and the residents of Davis that have the time and money to help “solve” those problems can drive across the causeway  anytime they want to help out in West Sac).  While it is true that it is not a “crime” to be homeless most (almost all) of the “homeless” break a long list of laws every day such as public urination, public intoxication, trespassing, littering and bike theft (ask the downtown bike shops how many bikes and trailers they “sell” to the homeless every year)…

    1. Don Shor

      This comment is both weird and horrifying. But it explains why community leaders have so much difficulty gaining traction for efforts to address underlying causes as they seek to reduce the public problems associated with homeless encampments.
      You are conflating a condition with crime and wife beating. That’s weird.

      People become homeless due to any number of factors, some of which they have little control over. Not every homeless person is committing serious crimes, and some of those you listed are frankly petty misdemeanors. The notion that it’s someone else’s problem is part of what keeps any efforts from getting underway. The mayor, police chief, and downtown businesses along with other service agencies are working toward proposals and funding that can address some of the problems that keep some of these folks trapped in their present conditions.

      “It is not the job of a city” — well, perhaps. I’m not sure which level of government, then, you would like to see addressing these hyper-local problems. The county? state? federal government? No, actually, it’s the job of a community to try to address the conditions and help the individuals who have fallen through the cracks. Getting them to existing services and resources, providing temporary shelter, experimenting to provide employment and training if that seems practical — those are all things that communities can do and things that have been proposed.

      What you are advocating is a complete abdication at the local level and apparently no other option. Move ’em along, arrest them if they break laws, and create a fortress city like those super-wealthy enclaves you keep using as examples? How does a repeated pattern of arrests and releases solve anything? At what level do you think these problems can possibly be addressed if not locally? Do you even think homelessness is a condition that merits our concern and action?

    2. Tia Will


      It is not the job of a city to “solve” the problems of crime, homelessness, spousal abuse or racism.”

      Really? It is not the job of the city to “solve” these problems? Do you realize that the police are employees of the city and you are arguing for the police to take action ? Although what action you think they can take that is in itself legal, you do not seem to state. Is not moving people from one place to another an attempt to “solve the problem” at least for the housed population who do not want the unhoused there ? Is it possible that what you really want is for the police ( agents of the city) to solve the “problem of homelessness” by making the homeless invisible to you ?


      1. Howard P

        The reality is, short of electro-shock therapy or lobotomies (and those are “iffy”), only the individuals who have chemical dependency, crime, spousal abuse or racism issues can “solve” the problems they have… all anyone else can do is educate, encourage, intervene, assist, etc. the individual to “solve” those problems.  It is good to try to help the individuals, but we can not “solve” anything, related to beliefs/behaviors..

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