The Astoria Police Department is beginning to track what it calls “aggressive activity” by people who are homeless.
For the most part, homeless people approached by police because of things like trespassing or alcohol violations interact peacefully and reasonably, Police Chief Geoff Spalding said.
But officers felt they were beginning to see a rise in confrontational and aggressive behavior.
“It made us want to know if what we feel is accurate,” Spalding said.
The police department already keeps track of calls that involve homeless people, a practice Spalding instituted last year in an effort to better understand the scope of the city’s homelessness issues.
After they are done responding to a call, officers are supposed to give the interaction a code — “40” — marking it as a homelessness-related call. Aggressive interactions will receive the code “41.”
Last year, officers, still getting used to the extra step, recorded 349 calls for homeless-related activity. Spalding believes the actual number was probably much higher. So far this year, the department has logged 319 calls.
The coding is “semiscientific,” Spalding told Mayor Bruce Jones’ homelessness solutions task force at a meeting Thursday.
But, he said, “it definitely feels like there’s a significant increase in calls.”
“Aggressive” is a subjective label, defined by the individual officer responding to a call. But Officer Nicole “Nikki” Riley said it can include actions like cussing at or berating police or not complying with an officer’s requests.
She also pointed to one example recently where she responded to reports of a fight near the American Legion on Exchange Street, an area where police frequently have reports of problems tied to the homeless.
Riley asked the groups to split up and went to talk to one person who was very intoxicated. She didn’t feel the need to do much more when all of a sudden one of the men who had been involved in the fight walked up and punched another man in the face right in front of her. She had to arrest him for his violent behavior.
Spalding has not done a deep dive into how often police are dealing with “repeat customers” or the types of calls they are responding to across the city. But he said the calls involve a diverse group of the homeless population and there seem to be particular problem areas.
The empty lot next to the American Legion and the Garden of Surging Waves is one such spot.
Riley sees many of the same people congregate peacefully for daily lunches served by the nonprofit Filling Empty Bellies at Peoples Park off Marine Drive.
Police are rarely, if ever, called to Peoples Park to deal with any kinds of problems, she said.
“You go down there you see a big large group of people, all of them just acting completely appropriate, really nice, friendly, helpful to each other,” Riley said. “That is not what we’re seeing in other locations. We are seeing a difference, a different behavior.”
But, she added, “some people act completely different once you get alcohol on board and in these other locations.”
It’s an important distinction.
“I appreciate you pointing that out, thank you,” Erin Carlsen, the director of Filling Empty Bellies, told Riley at the task force meeting.
“We don’t want to lump individuals who are experiencing homelessness in the same category as people who are having poor behavior in our community because it’s not about the homeless,” Spalding said.
“Although,” he added, “I will say a lot of the people who are homeless are part of this problem. But again this is about behavior that’s impacting our community, that we’re getting complaints on and that we’re responding to calls for service.”
Still, anyone can cause problems in the city, he said.
When it comes to public questions of safety or suspicious circumstances and the homeless, police are often juggling perception versus reality, the police chief said.