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The Secret Weapon

A Tough New Police Policy Targets the Homeless. Why Doesn't Anyone Know About It?

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JUST LOOKING at crime statistics, last year was among Portland's safest in decades. But according to the Portland Police Bureau, life in the Rose City felt as precarious as ever.

"I heard more complaints last year from everyday citizens feeling they were intimidated, they were afraid, they felt they were going to be the victim of crime," Assistant Police Chief Larry O'Dea said in a presentation to local leaders and justice officials in early February.

Cops largely blame the homeless. And this summer, they say, things will be different.

At the presentation, O'Dea and Chief Mike Reese unveiled "Prosper Portland," a set of proposals designed to curb visible homelessness and unappealing activity that make downtown feel unsafe. And they reiterated a familiar gripe: Ever since a judge threw out Portland's controversial "sit-lie" ordinance almost five years ago, the bureau doesn't have the tools to effectively clean up downtown.

"Our ordinance is challenging for us," Reese said at the meeting. "Our current sidewalks ordinance allows much of what you see to occur."

What Reese didn't mention—and what some high-level officials didn't realize until the Mercury let them know—was that he has a new weapon in place: a tough policy that addresses exactly the type of nuisances many Portlanders take issue with.

By targeting low-level offenders for arrest and ramped-up prosecution, cops and prosecutors say they can persuade troublemakers to clean up their act—or at least take it to another city.

"There's enough of a consequence that, all of a sudden, Portland's not just this completely defenseless community," says Chuck Sparks, a chief deputy in the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office.

But like sit-lie, this Chronic Offender Pilot Project (COPP) has spurred concerns it's overbroad and may violate civil liberties. The policy also might impact the Multnomah County Jail, which only recently seems to have gotten ahold of persistent overcrowding issues.

Some advocates worry the program could bury already disadvantaged people even deeper, saddling them with debt and a criminal background or arrest warrant.

"It might solve a short-term problem, but it doesn't do anything for the long-term," says Monica Goracke, an attorney at the Oregon Law Center. "That kind of leadership needs to come from the city."

Here's how it works: Until last year, prosecutors say, crimes of littering, public intoxication, and public urination carried little consequence. Offenders were given a court date, and, if they didn't show up, nothing meaningful happened. Their offenses were reduced to violations, so judges didn't even enter a warrant that would flag them for arrest.

COPP wields a heavier hammer. Now, instead of citing people for these nuisance crimes, cops can simply issue a warning and place the offender on a list. If an officer catches the same person, say, littering again a day or week or month later, that person will be charged with "interfering with a peace officer," a class A misdemeanor, along with the original nuisance offense.

And if that person, once released, doesn't show up for court? An arrest warrant is issued.

The policy—currently limited to downtown and the Lloyd District—"should serve to make Portland less attractive to people who want to come here and openly violate the law and degrade community livability," reads an internal procedure statement obtained by the Mercury, plainly referring to the "travelers" who descend on Portland in the sunny months.

COPP began toward the end of last summer, a season that saw sweeps of homeless camps and included a high-profile—if singular—incident in which a teenager used a skateboard to attack an elderly shopkeeper.

The new program has been used sparingly, but that's set to change. COPP has already been extended once, and officials say they'll keep it going past its current April 1 expiration date and into the city's busy tourism months.

When the program started "we handpicked officers who we thought had the temperament," says Commander Bob Day, who oversees the police bureau's central precinct. "If we continue this we'll be educating more and training more."

According to the district attorney's office, just 20 people had been cited under COPP as of February 21. Of those cases, three resulted in conviction, three were dismissed, four are open, and 10 have active warrants for arrest. (The DA's office declined to share the list).

Paradoxically, cops and prosecutors see the warrants—each one adding a fugitive to the county's rolls—as potential victories.

"People with warrants just tend to find their way to the police," says Jim Hayden, a senior deputy district attorney. "If these people are still hanging out downtown, why aren't they being picked up?"

The answer, officials hope, is that they've skipped town. Both Hayden and Sparks theorized that word can spread quickly among bands of travelers. Whether by Facebook, Twitter, or old-fashioned word of mouth, they think the news is out: Portland's going to throw you in jail.

Many justice officials and advocates say they haven't heard of COPP. But facets of the program raised questions and concerns nonetheless.

For instance, its interpretation of the state's law on "interfering with a peace officer," which makes it a class A misdemeanor to refuse a cop's "lawful order."

"[Interfering] is the most overbroad statute in the world, and you can use it against anyone at any time," says public defender Chris O'Connor. "Why don't they just send out a public text alert and say, 'Everybody obey the law today'? Then you can arrest people for jaywalking."

Use of the statute also raises a red flag for Becky Straus, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

"If the City of Portland's police bureau is interpreting that statute in a way that's so overbroad that it's infringing on people's rights, we'd be concerned about that," she says.

And what about the policy's effect on the county jail system, which has been so overcrowded in recent years it had to release record amounts of inmates?

That problem has subsided, with no emergency releases since November, according to the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. But increased arrests and arrest warrants for minor crimes could change that picture. The sheriff's office said it had not heard of COPP, and couldn't comment.

Goracke, the Oregon Law Center attorney, said in some ways COPP sounds like an improvement over the "sit-lie" ordinance, which famously outlawed sitting on the sidewalk, in many cases.

"I can't say I think it's a terrible idea to go after those problematic behaviors," she says. But she notes that the policy has the potential to create real problems for homeless people already facing long odds.

"That's not a small offense," she says of the interference charge. "When they do take whatever steps it takes to end their homelessness, they have this record and all these fines racked up against them."

The argument's not lost on Day, who says he's leery that police officers are often treated as the "tip of the spear" when homelessness is concerned. The commander says he has no illusions the city can arrest its way out of these problems, and that officers will be "judicious" in how they use the policy this year.

But, he also notes: "There needs to be accountability. If they're going to drink and urinate in the streets of Portland and they decide that's inconvenient and they want to go to Santa Barbara, I'm fine with that."

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