A couple of issues stood out when Police Chief Paul Workman provided City Council with an overview of downtown policing practices last week. One is that though much of a rising volume of complaints stems from disturbances involving homeless people, standard law enforcement on its own will not solve the problem. The other is that the current level of nuisance and criminal activity strains Laguna’s police force, inviting creative solutions to maximize limited resources.
Workman pointed out that “being homeless is not a crime.” The statement seems obvious, but points to the fact that a homeless person sitting on a public bench has every right to be there, and law enforcement has no business bothering them. If that person commits a crime or public disturbance of some sort, they can be fined or arrested, depending on the offense, just like anyone else. But that will not change their living situation, a nuance Workman seems to recognize.
“With homeless people, issuing them a ticket doesn’t do anything,” Workman said. “They’re still sitting there, holding a piece of paper.” That’s where the department’s community outreach officer Corporal Jason Farris comes in. Farris liaises with Laguna’s homeless population, talking to them, attempting to understand their circumstances and, where possible, lining them to available services.
“They’re here, they’re not going to go away, and we just have to find alternative solutions,” said Workman.
The city’s attorney, Phil Kohn, suggested that the “primary objective of fines is to get [the homeless] into the system,” and line them up with services to deal with their needs.
Homeless advocate James Keegan, in an interview Wednesday, rejected that conclusion. Even leaving aside the detrimental effects of repeatedly fining an indigent until the unpaid fines lead to jail time, Keegan said he observed homeless people shy away from meeting with a mental health worker when accompanied by an officer, but warm up in their absence.
In any event, the department’s staff have been increasingly strained since nuisance criminal behavior began to rise last summer with growing complaints of public intoxication, panhandling, violent outbursts, aggressive behavior and unlawful camping, to name a few.
Through shifting resources, funding a part time foot patrol downtown and overtime hours, they did manage to reduce complaints and calls for service, said Workman.
Even so, a new spike in complaints emerged from residents and merchants in the aftermath of a controversial proposal unveiled last month to build permanent housing for the mentally disabled homeless in Laguna Canyon.
Many of the housing project’s detractors said they feared it might exacerbate what they describe as an untenable level of illicit behavior among vagrants in canyon neighborhoods, downtown, at Main Beach and in Heisler Park. And their testimony has since revived momentum for expanded police patrols and a larger force.
Regardless of whether the proposed housing might alleviate or worsen the problem, “We clearly have an issue with respect to the current policing and management of homeless activity downtown, so we as a city need to figure out a better solution now,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen at the earlier hearing in April.
Issues with homelessness are endemic to communities everywhere, not just Laguna Beach, said Workman. Enforcement isn’t the sole solution when dealing with people who have mental health issues and who can’t care for themselves. The goal is to keep them from violating the law and to improve their behavior, he said.
Going forward, he pledged that the police department will build on efforts begun last summer.
Farris, who spends a lot of time in the canyon, will spend more time downtown and will keep working with the county health department to expand social services, the chief said.
Officer Zach Martinez, who last year began devoting 20 hours a week to patrolling downtown streets on foot and establishing relationships with merchants, will continue his beat and will now have a bicycle available so that he can ride, rather than run, to respond to emergencies. Shopkeepers welcome the presence, said Workman.
Using overtime hours, the department will begin a seven-day-a-week bike patrol this month to increase police visibility around town; and as local streets and beaches swell with summer tourists, a relatively inexpensive civilian enforcement staff will increase patrols at Main Beach and Heisler Park and also address hot spots and emerging problems downtown, Workman said.
He noted that two civilian enforcement officers assigned last year to the bus depot when it became a trouble spot, as well as video monitors, did reduce incidents there.
Finally, given the value of public feedback in fine-tuning their efforts, Workman said city staff is distributing a letter to merchants urging their involvement and including a reference guide outlining available services, such as filing a trespass authorization form with the department, which allows officers to act as an agent for the property owner and enforce trespassing laws. They also developed a blue card as a general reference to community members that provides police contact information and describes the kind of incidents that should be reported immediately.
After Workman’s presentation, retired firefighter and Canyon Acres resident Carl Klass complained that lack of police manpower results in canyon neighborhoods “being overrun nightly” by the homeless.
Klass seems to echo a position of Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees Association, who has lobbied to restore the department’s sworn force to its 2003 peak of 50. When the Council approved a 47th officer in January, he pushed for a 48th, citing increased calls for service at the bus depot and the city’s existing overnight homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon.
He has an ally in Council member Steve Dicterow, who vowed he would reject the upcoming city budget if it didn’t include funding an additional officer.
Workman acknowledged the department’s personnel shortage, exacerbated by a lengthy hiring process. The 47-officer force is effectively 43: two are just coming out of the academy, a third requires another month of training and the fourth still has to be hired, he said. “It’s been a challenge to find qualified individuals,” Workman said.
In light of testimony by Klass and others, Whalen said the department should consider adding enforcement resources to the canyon.
City Manager John Pietig called for creative solutions and flexibility in shifting limited resources to address the most urgent problems. To deal with increased vandalism and safety concerns near Kubisak’s, at 3300 Laguna Canyon Dr., for example, he said that relocation of a bus stop is under consideration. Police also hope for pinpoint guidance from a helicopter equipped with thermal imaging to detect illicit campers, he said.
Beefed up technology on the ground also provides police with video feeds from recently installed cameras around downtown. Though not constantly monitored, a desk-bound supervisor can rotate a camera toward a reported problem and the images prove useful in tracking perpetrators after the fact, Workman said.
The public needs to report incidents of bad behavior as they occur, said Pietig, reiterating Workman’s plea for public participation. “Then we can better address them.”