Sit-lie restrictions needed to keep sidewalks open

By Mike Reese, Guest opinion posted in the Oregonian, August 9 2009. Mike Reese is Central Precinct Commander with the Portland Police Bureau.

Enforcement tool addresses behavior of ‘road warriors’

Mike Reese

Mike Reese

As the Central Precinct commander for the Portland Police Bureau, I oversee the enforcement of the sidewalk obstruction ordinance and interact regularly with the homeless and their social service providers.

As a founding member of the Street Access for Everyone committee (SAFE), I have looked carefully at the issues of sidewalk obstruction and homelessness for the past three years. The SAFE committee was instrumental in securing enhanced services for the homeless and developing a sidewalk obstruction ordinance that balanced the needs of the homeless and the downtown community.

In June, a Multnomah County judge said the ordinance is pre-empted by the state’s disorderly conduct statute. In a previous ruling, however, a different Multnomah County judge upheld the ordinance and said the SAFE process was a hallmark of good public policy. The city attorney and Portland City Council are seeking clarification on these competing rulings before deciding what adjustments to the current ordinance are needed.

With the ruling in June, the only tool police now have to address sidewalk obstruction is the state disorderly conduct statute, a criminal offense, which raises the question: Should the police arrest someone engaged in sidewalk obstruction using a criminal statute? It seems a little like driving a thumbtack with a sledgehammer.

The ordinance, on the other hand, strikes a balance that allows police to keep the sidewalks free for pedestrian travel while recognizing the many exceptions that may legitimately apply (people waiting for goods or services such as TriMet riders, medical issues and protests). The police can only issue citations after warning a person that their behavior is a problem, and the charge is a violation that can result in community service or a fine.

Most important to note is that the majority of citations have been issued to “road warriors,” young adults between 18 and 30 years of age. They’re the ones engaged in aggressive panhandling and intimidating behavior in downtown. I’ve talked to nearly a hundred of these young adults over the past three years. Most are addicted to heroin or alcohol. They travel across the country and don’t have ties to our community.

They have made a lifestyle choice to live on the streets, and they consistently refuse housing, treatment or other services. Social service providers have told me that this group is very difficult to connect with and often preys on the traditional homeless population.

The sidewalk obstruction ordinance is one of the few tools the police have that allows us to engage the road warriors and local street youth in a fairly low-level enforcement manner. In fact, I’ve had several “sidewalk” conversations with the young woman whose case resulted in the recent court ruling. My hope is that this dialogue will help support and encourage her to become clean, sober and permanently housed.

The notion that being homeless means that you can engage in anti-social behavior is not reasonable. So is the idea that the city cannot reasonably regulate the sidewalks in downtown for the common good. Somehow all of us have to find a way to get along. We as a community have to decide what behavior is acceptable and what is not.

As part of the SAFE process, homeless providers and advocates, business leaders, downtown residents and police officers came to the same conclusion: Blocking sidewalks and intimidating other people is not acceptable. Through this ordinance, we had an effective way to address this behavior. The sidewalk obstruction ordinance made downtown a more welcoming and safe place for everyone.

OUR COMMENT – Mike Reese misunderstands his role as a police officer, and some basic issues around homelessness, and, perhaps in the case of these “road warriors,” addiction and mental illness. This misunderstanding, that police officers are responsible somehow for providing leverage to cause persons with addiction or mental illness to seek treatment, has two basic problems. One, his basic assumption is wrong – police officers are neither the leverage or the fulcrum toward addiction treatment. Two, Reese clearly hasn’t the education or orientation to what addiction or mental illness is; Reese writes, “They have made a lifestyle choice to live on the streets, and they consistently refuse housing, treatment or other services;” this is amazingly false, akin to writing that prostitutes like to have sex with twenty men a night.

This misunderstanding is perpetuated by bad management in our police department, management which allows individual officers to become entrepreneurs and social reformers.

EXTRA – Sit /Lie Dies – Portland Mercury, July 2 2009