Santa Rosa City Council members stuck to their plan Tuesday to get tougher on quality-of-life crimes in the city but faced withering criticism from advocates for homeless people who called the move cruel and counterproductive.
While downtown business interests supported the move, critics took the council to task for its plan to resume treating various city laws — including rules against smoking, drinking and urinating in public, and aggressive panhandling — as misdemeanors punishable by higher fines and jail time.
Council members in the majority struck a three-part defense, stressing that the plan to increase penalties on such offenses was just another tool police officers could use; that it was part of a broader homeless strategy; and that it might provide people the incentive they need to accept the housing and other aid.
“The effort that this council is making is to try to put homeless people into housing and not to put homeless people in jail,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.
But many critics saw the move as a step backward from the council’s recent efforts to boost spending on homeless services and its concerted push to get people into housing.
“Housing first, huh? Jail is housing first? Really? Shame on you!” Merlin Davis told the council.
That invective was shouted at the council numerous times during the meeting as advocates for homeless people seethed at the proposed change.
Susan Chunco, a supporter of a sanctioned homeless encampment in Roseland called Remembrance Village, listed numerous shortfalls in service that homeless people in the county endure, including long waiting lists for shelter and housing and lack of access to aid for mentally ill residents.
“It amazes me that you would come up with something that would marginalize these people even further,” Chunco said.
Jay Foxworthy, a San Francisco sheriff’s deputy who lives in Santa Rosa and is running for Sonoma County sheriff, urged the council to reverse course. He called the council’s plan “the wrong thing to do.”
“These are policies that are going to make people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, scared of law enforcement. I am strongly against them,” Foxworthy said.
The move would effectively reverse a 2013 policy to prosecute violations of city ordinances as infractions instead of misdemeanors. The change left officers writing tickets that were often ignored. 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.
Several downtown business leaders supported the move, including developer Hugh Futrell and Exchange Bank Vice President Rolf Nelson. Mortgage lender Gary Lentz called it “absolute common sense.”
“We want the quality of life to return to something approximating normal” downtown, Lentz said.
City Attorney Sue Gallagher said she was working on an agreement with District Attorney Jill Ravitch outlining how such crimes would be prosecuted, who would pay for it and how people would be steered into services instead of jail.
That last piece was important to Councilman Jack Tibbetts, who said he didn’t want the city to make it harder for homeless people to find housing because of the criminal record or poor credit scores resulting from an arrest and fines they couldn’t pay.
He said he was “very eager” to see how the city, jail and DA planned to divert people in need from the jail.
“Short of that, I can’t support it,” Tibbetts said.
Similarly, Councilman Chris Rogers said he supported giving police tools to address disruptive and inconsiderate behavior, but he voiced concern about how it would be implemented. He was troubled by increased penalties for public urination and defecation when the city had opted to forgo providing additional bathrooms, or for sleeping in one’s car when the city had failed to provide a place for that, as well.
“I can’t in good conscience make it a misdemeanor for something that we have failed to provide an outlet for,” Rogers said.
Both councilmen supported the plan moving forward, however. No vote was taken, but it appeared Councilwoman Julie Combs was the only council member who would have voted against it.
She questioned the cost to taxpayers and whether the city had any data to justify it.
“We in Santa Rosa are better than this mean policy,” she said after the meeting.
The two retired police officers on the council, Ernesto Olivares and Tom Schwedhelm, both endorsed the shift.
“Some (say) the criminal justice system is not the solution to our problem. I absolutely agree. But it is part of it,” Schwedhelm said.
Schwedhelm said police officers are not the “hook ’em and book ’em” types, but rather build relationship with homeless people and want to see them get the help they need.
If the laws are not enforced, “what’s the point of even having them?” he asked.
Several council members said they trusted police to use good judgment, but wanted to see detailed reporting on how the policy was panning out.
“If it’s not being used with discretion and if it’s not being used sparingly, I’m going to have a problem with that.” Coursey said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.