Santa Rosa is pressing forward with a controversial plan to give police more power to enforce laws commonly associated with homelessness.
The City Council today will consider whether to allow police to crack down on certain quality-of-life offenses — such as camping on public property, aggressive panhandling and public urination — by upgrading the offenses from infractions, which typically result in a ignored ticket, to misdemeanors, which can involve a trip to jail.
The debate, as it has in the past, will invariably turn on whether the policy shift is viewed as criminalizing homelessness or merely allowing police to enforce existing laws governing common decency, regardless of who violates them.
“Criminalizing homelessness is a catchy phrase, but that’s not what we’re doing here,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.
The move, which has been discussed for nearly a year, would effectively reverse a 2013 policy to prosecute violations of city ordinances, like drinking in public and obstructing sidewalks, as infractions instead of misdemeanors. That left officers in the position of writing tickets to people who would never pay the fine or show up to court.
Misdemeanors carry fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, while infractions only carry a fine of up to $250 for the first offense and no risk of jail time.
The 2013 policy change was based on “financial considerations,” said City Attorney Sue Gallagher, who took over the office in March. Beyond that, however, Gallagher said she’s been “unable to uncover a clear reason” for the switch.
Giving police the option of treating such as cases as misdemeanors is not to “crack down” on homeless people, Coursey said, but rather to motivate them to avail themselves of the range of additional services the city is now offering, including extra beds at the shelter and more ways to find permanent housing.
“The goal is not to put people in jail. It’s not to fine them thousands of dollars. It’s to get them into services and housing,” Coursey said.
Coursey said the move will give officers a new tool but he expects them to use it sparingly, only in cases of repeat offenses, and when other outreach efforts fail.
The switch is unlikely to be welcomed by all council members. In the past, Councilwoman Julie Combs has expressed disappointment the city was considering spending more on enforcement instead of expanded services. And Councilman Jack Tibbetts has indicated he would only support such a move if it offered an alternate path for people to get their criminal records expunged through work programs, noting that such records can make it harder for people to find housing. Details of the agreement with District Attorney Jill Ravitch are expected to be outlined at today’s meeting, and will likely involve a cost-sharing component, Gallagher said.
The move is consistent with the city’s recent push to move people out of longtime encampments on public property, such as Homeless Hill off Bennett Valley Road.
The idea of increased enforcement has also been strongly supported by downtown merchants, many of whom argue that the presence of homeless people can detract from what is otherwise a very positive economic turnaround underway in a downtown anchored by a reunified Old Courthouse Square.