The Astoria Police Department’s more aggressive approach to the homeless could include issuing citations for low-level offenses where before police might have issued warnings first, arresting someone instead of citing them, stopping people who are walking their dogs off leash, and enforcing rules against overnight camping.
Police have also begun to tag incidents when a call involved someone who is homeless or a homelessness-related issue.
Police Chief Geoff Spalding hopes this will help the city better understand what kind of calls are coming in and how many, but officers cannot target people simply because they are homeless.
“I want to be clear that we are not suggesting, nor is (Astoria City Council) suggesting, any actions that would violate any person’s constitutional rights or profile any class of individual,” Spalding said, adding, “What we are trying to address are the associated behaviors such as trespassing, public urination and defection, assaults and other quality of life crimes.”
The City Council voted 3-2 on Monday to support the police “in dealing with the bad behavior of certain individuals on the street.” The motion grew out of months of debate about how the city should address homelessness and growing unease and frustration in the downtown business community about illegal or disruptive behavior.
Business owners downtown, as well as some people who live in the neighborhood near the Astoria Warming Center on 11th Street and Franklin Avenue, have told city councilors they feel unsafe around the homeless.
“It’s very important that people feel safe in our community,” Spalding said, “and what we hear from many in the community is that they don’t feel safe when they are regularly confronted by homeless individuals.”
Despite the council’s show of support, a lack of resources will hamper what the police department is able to do. Until the department is fully staffed again — or until the council approves the hiring of additional officers — the shift in enforcement priorities will be carried out in a limited way, Spalding said.
“This may also require us to look at our current priorities and shift resources away from other patrol activities to spend more time on this problem,” he added.
While the City Council’s motion was alarming to some advocacy groups who work with the homeless, for Chris Bradley, who is homeless in Astoria, the motion put him on edge.
“Especially if I’m on my way to work, because I’m walking down the street with a backpack and a dog, on my way to work and you’re going to stop and hassle me?” he said. “At this point, it’s the tightening of the screws.”
Because he doesn’t engage in behavior that could get him in trouble, Bradley said he has never worried about citations or tickets before. His dog is on leash and up-to-date on all her shots, he said. Though he is sleeping outside, he has a job working on the remodel of the Van Dusen Building where Astoria Maker Industries plans to open.
“I’m not a criminal. I’m not a tweaker. I’m not trespassing. I’m working,” he said.
City Councilors Zetty Nemlowill, Bruce Jones and Mayor Arline LaMear voted in favor of the motion, which came up during a public comment period Monday. Debbie Boothe Schmidt, owner of Phog Bounders Antique Mall, had asked if a parking space close to her business could be exempted from the two-hour parking time limit and available for her employees to use later in the afternoon and evening.
Currently, they park on a street where homeless people gather throughout the day and whose presence intimidates both her employees and her customers, Boothe Schmidt said.
City Councilors Tom Brownson and Cindy Price voted against the motion. They said they were supportive of the police department, but Brownson said he wanted more time to consider the language and implications of the motion. Price said that, among other concerns, she was worried about targeting individuals or specific populations.
LaMear, Nemlowill and Jones felt the motion could quickly begin to help address Boothe Schmidt’s concerns. Price disagrees.
“I‘m angry that a group of perhaps 30 or 40 people is harming our businesses and intimidating our residents. But being drunk or high on the streets, saying nasty things as people go by, panhandling, smelling nasty and looking scary aren’t illegal,” Price said in an email Thursday. “I’m certain our police officers are enforcing the laws as best they can.
“We have to work with our community partners to discourage enabling activities and act on sustainable solutions. The real stand for public safety comes in the budget committee. Perhaps I’ll be joined by a majority in this fourth year that I’ll advocate for tough choices to fund an additional police officer.
“Meanwhile we could prioritize public safety and provide a safer environment for all business employees right now by suspending or revising parking enforcement for a couple weeks until the days grow longer.”