Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 4:12 pm | Fair 59º


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Santa Barbara Council Tackles Issue of Transient-Related Street Crime

City leaders say they're interested in targeting the behavior, not the individuals, in an effort to protect residents and businesses

Two members of the Santa Barbara City Council instigated a meaty discussion during Tuesday’s meeting about how to deal with transient-related street crime.

Councilmen Randy Rowse and Frank Hotchkiss requested that the city attorney brief the council on which ordinances are on the books regarding the crimes.

Hotchkiss began by reading an email from a resident who went to State Street to see a movie and get dinner. The resident witnessed a transient hit one of the restaurant’s employees in the head after the man refused to leave the store.

“For the first time in 20 years in Santa Barbara, I was scared to walk on State Street,” the reader wrote.

“We have become more and more accepting of inappropriate conduct,” Hotchkiss said. “That’s a status quo I don’t want to live with.”

Rowse stressed that he and Hotchkiss hadn’t brought up the item to target individuals, but behavior.

“The actions of the few can really usurp the needs of many,” he said.

Rowse said he also had heard from several people about aggressive transients. One couple held their wedding on a Santa Barbara beach and were going to stay for their honeymoon but went to La Jolla instead because of what they saw.

The city sees chronic offenders who regularly violate the law, usually with open container violations, drunk in public and the like. There are also zone offenders, who appear in certain areas where the city is having problems. The Cabrillo Ball Field is one, and police have heightened enforcement in the area.

Instead of saying crimes are homeless-related, transient is a more appropriate term, according to City Attorney Steve Wiley, because many of the people committing these crimes are from out of town and passing through to somewhere else.

Wiley walked the City Council through some of the common municipal codes that come up when dealing with transients. Challenges exist, from budget constraints that keep fewer officers off the streets to being able to prosecute actions such as panhandling because of First Amendment protections.

“It all goes back to the court decisions that say that simply begging, without accosting someone, is a constitutional right,” Wiley said. “There is a lot of tension between First Amendment rights and what we can actually prosecute.”

An officer cannot arrest someone for a misdemeanor unless he or she sees the offense occur. A person who witnesses a crime can also call dispatch, but must be willing to wait until the officer shows up and be willing to sign a third party citation.

“That’s the sort of thing that it takes,” Wiley said.

He said drunk in public is a tough one to prosecute as well, because it says an individual must be unable to care for themselves or the safety of others. Loitering is also difficult to define in legal terms, and must be connected with the person waiting for the opportunity to commit a crime.

The city’s ordinance on sitting and lying in public is based on a similar law from the city of Seattle that went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Santa Barbara’s ordinance makes it illegal to sit directly or lie on the ground in the first 13 blocks of State Street.

What was clear Tuesday was that city police have handed out an exceptional amount of citations for transient-related crimes. In 2009, 4,207 citations were issued in the downtown corridor, and 1,106 were issued in the area around Casa Esperanza.

Limited jail space makes it likely that people given misdemeanors will be immediately released. In that vein, a restorative court program has been started in South County, patterned after drug court, and Wiley said it has seen great progress so far.

Santa Barbara Police Deputy Chief Frank Mannix said restorative policing is a bright spot and that the department is seeking to expand that program.

“We realize we aren’t going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.

Next Monday, the city will hold a budget hearing and will talk in detail about expanding the program.

Many of Tuesday’s speakers agreed with Rowse and Hotchkiss about targeting bad behavior. Heather Shepherd, formerly homeless, said that some of the homeless are frightened by the aggressiveness they’ve seen on the streets.

“We feel just as intimidated by the behavior you’re talking about,” she said.

A host of business owners spoke about how the crimes affect customers and business. Paul Gifford of Blue Sands Motel on lower Milpas Street said that a female vagrant who was heavily intoxicated jumped in the pool with all of her clothes on. She refused to leave and yelled profanities at many of the guests.

“It is affecting us,” he said. “There are some bad apples that cause problems.”

Council members lamented the lack of funding and fewer police officers, which will assuredly be the subject of many budget hearings to come as the city tries to hammer out a spending plan for the coming year. Councilman Bendy White said looking at nonsworn personnel doing more outreach with homeless people will be part of the budget discussions.

Councilman Grant House said he isn’t sure that hiring more police officers is the answer.

“With the numbers of citations ... You can arrest and arrest, and it becomes a revolving door,” he said. “Our goal is to solve the problem,” adding that more outreach and mental health workers are greatly needed.

Mayor Helene Schneider said the city has done much during the past two years to deal with the problem, but can do more. Instituting a recovery zone on lower Milpas Street with restrictions on alcohol sales would be one idea. Encouraging residents to be proactive as well is key, she said, adding that efforts such as not giving to panhandlers would have an impact on State Street.

“Whatever we can do to discourage people from giving to panhandlers will help curb that problem,” she said.

Hotchkiss encouraged people to call police when they see violations and not give handouts to people panhandling.

“I’m trying to educate all of us so that when we see something, we can take action on it,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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