Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Sit-Lie: Mixed Messaging, Expectations and Trust

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

Salem Connection Vol 10 Issue 31
The City's mixed messaging on sit-lie is causing everyone a good deal of confusion.

Monday, the Mayor announced that there would be a work session at 6p Monday, November 18 to try to get everyone on the same page.  See Brynelson, T. "Salem City Council to discuss 'sit-lie' ordinance in work session Monday."  (November 13, 2019, Salem Reporter.)

City propaganda has claimed sit-lie will "address citywide impacts of behaviors in the public right-of-way" and "ensure all of Salem remains welcoming to all visitors by keeping sidewalks and public spaces clean."  City staff have told the public that this means uniform and consistent enforcement throughout the City.

However, recent reports are that at least two City Councilors who support sit-lie are doing so because Chief Moore has said sit-lie is needed for about a dozen people whose behavior is causing problems -- presumably downtown -- and police lack the means to address it, and that, if sit-lie were to pass as-is, it would be applied with compassion and very selectively and rarely.

So, now people are asking, "Which is true?  Will enforcement be uniform citywide?  Or will it be selective and rare?"

The reports on what the Council's been told echo what Chief Moore told us when we met with him several months ago -- i.e.,  that he believes the vast majority will simply comply with the new law, either on their own, or when warned, and there won't be much need for enforcement (which we take to mean not many citations will need to be issued).  As we didn't recall the Chief saying sit-lie was needed to deal with about a dozen people downtown, we asked him about the reports.  He emailed in reply that the reports were "pretty much what I have stated, both publicly and privately, and to you and Michael, for about three years."

So, there we have it:  sit-lie is intended to address the behavior of 12 individuals, and enforcement will be selective and rare.

Still curious about the dozen behavior problems, we asked Jimmy Jones whether, at any point, the City or Police Department had come to the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA) and said, "Look, we've got a dozen or so people downtown who're causing problems we can't control. Here are their names.  Can you target resources toward them and maybe get them stably housed so we don't have to find a reason to put them in jail?"  He said no, he'd not been asked. 

Police have no-showed all five Downtown Good Neighbor Partnership meetings held so far this year.

Police know MWVCAA/The ARCHES Project does all the screening for housing programs (including Salem Housing Authority's Homeless Rental Assistance Program), and police know how to ask for assistance for people living on the streets, so it's very odd that police haven't asked for assistance with this group of people.  Kinda makes you wonder who these people are that the police supposedly can't deal with.  Are they people with names?  Or, more likely, are they merely an estimate of how few will be cited under the ordinance? 

Salem's de facto homeless policy is "trust the police."  Councilors who support sit-lie believe that if Chief Moore says he needs this ordinance, then the City Council should just give it to him.  It doesn't matter what the ordinance says (which is why they haven't bothered to read it).  But what if Chief Moore is wrong?

What if having sit-lie on the books won't be enough to elicit compliance?  The City has revealed no plans to put up signs or otherwise educate the public in the event Council adopts sit-lie.  What if police have to warn/cite in order to gain compliance, as seems likely?  Is Chief Moore prepared to devote resources to that effort?  Other cities that adopted sit-lie laws initially issued numerous citations, gradually decreasing enforcement activity over time -- not because people had got the message, but because enforcement action wasn't having the desired effect.  See, e.g., here and here.

But, if compliance with sit-lie isn't widespread, it's not going to have the desired effect (i.e., result in a "Salem that's welcoming to all visitors by keeping sidewalks and public spaces clean"), and it's not going to reduce complaints from downtown businesses.    

And what if, heaven forfend, Chief Moore's cops are not all as caring and compassionate as he and his senior officers are?  And, let's say there is widespread, dispassionate, enforcement.  There's a substantial likelihood that sit-lie will cause even more people experiencing homelessness to avoid contact with police -- as happened in San Francisco.  Even now, in Salem, stories like this are not uncommon, we just don't hear about them:

My brother was on the way to work, and, as was his habit, he stopped at the Starbucks off of Salem Parkway (2505 Liberty Street, near Spin City Laundromat).  He and a Salem police officer ordered their drinks around the same time and were waiting to get them.  While they were waiting, the officer walked over to a disheveled man at a table quietly warming himself over a cup of coffee, with what appeared to be his belongings beside him.  The officer told the man he was not allowed to loiter and should move on.  My brother said something like, hey, he’s not doing anything, to which the officer responded by telling him to mind his own business.  My brother said that's what he's doing (motioning toward the man bent over his coffee), minding his own business.  The officer asked our friend would he rather the officer come over there and talk to him, to which my brother said something like sure you can talk to me, at which point he was called to get his drink. 
Trust between police and their communities is vital.  But trust doesn't mean being naive, or turning a blind eye when procedures aren't followed or discretion is abused.  Even with Chief Moore's reassurances, sit-lie has great potential for abuse, and very little on the up side, despite all the hype in City propaganda about keeping Salem clean and welcoming to all visitors.

Trust requires truthful, consistent messaging.  In 2018, Salem police officer David Smith told the Statesman Journal, "You can understand how frustrating it is for [people experiencing homelessness] when everybody is trying to help them one day, and then the next day everybody wants them to leave.  So to me, I think it's important that we be more consistent in our message."  See Hernandez, L. "Salem police on front line of growing homeless crisis, urge changes."  (June 14, 2018, Statesman Journal.) 

"Salem police...urge changes" in 2018
Maybe Chief Moore thinks he needs sit-lie, or maybe it's Mayor Bennett or City Manager Powers who think Chief Moore needs sit-lie.  We don't really know whose bad idea it is.

What we do know is that, 18 months ago, the Downtown Enforcement Team were not asking for sit-lie.  They were instead focused on a proven strategy -- building relationships.  And they  were asking for a safe place to take people who were intoxicated, for public storage for personal property, and for a 27/7 navigation center.  See Hernandez, L. "Salem police on front line of growing homeless crisis, urge changes."  (June 14, 2018, Statesman Journal.)  To date, the City Council has given the police none of those tools.  And its messaging is nothing close to consistent.

"Trust the police" is not much of a homeless policy, but when the City can't or won't work to give police  appropriate tools, tools they've said they need, and forces them to ask for rusty, unreliable substitutes like sit-lie, the City can hardly claim to be trusting the police.   

San-Francisco has more than 36 "quality of life" laws, including its own sit-lie, passed in 2013.  In 2019, however, the primary strategy of San Francisco police is to "routinely steer[] homeless people to shelters, navigation centers and health services."  The proverbial pendulum has swung away from enforcement tactics like sit-lie because experience has shown they are not effective.

The City Council should be finding ways to support proven strategies like building relationships, not enacting outdated, inhumane and ineffective laws because they apparently can't be bothered to cooperate with providers to address the problem behaviors of twelve individuals.

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