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