One Tough Issue

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It’s an incredibly polarizing topic of discussion in our city:  What should be done about the homeless problem?  There are valid arguments on both sides, and as a police department, we are very familiar with those arguments as we often bear the brunt of harsh criticism from both sides of the debate. 

There are some in our community that think our department simply doesn’t do enough to help people living on the streets or down by the river.  They often tell us we should stop issuing tickets to people who can’t afford to pay them anyway.  Some critics go as far to say that all we do is harass the people who stand on the street corners holding signs or hang out in City parks.

The criticism can be just as strong from the other side; from those who think police departments shouldn’t be in the business of using tax payer money to help out “the local bums.”  From this crowd we’re frequently told that the homeless and transient population already gets away with too much, from illegal camping to ruining our parks.  The words “bleeding hearts” and “caving to political correctness” pop up frequently from this side.

So what’s a police department to do?  The answer is simple: do what’s right.  And that is what is shaping the decision to reassign 3 officers to create a team that will deal with an issue that both sides of the debate will agree is only getting worse.  This isn’t about finding middle ground, it’s about trying to tackle a problem that is a drain on our already tight resources, a problem that is of a great concern to people in our community regardless of what side they are on, and a problem that is a public safety issue for those who are homeless.

In our search for a solution we learned about the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) the Colorado Springs Police Department put together, which reduced their calls for service related to the homeless by 60% in about 18 months.  Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers has a great quote: “You can’t arrest your way out of the homeless issue.”  He’s right.  That’s not to say we won’t enforce the law just because someone is homeless.  It means if there’s a better solution with a long term impact that writing a ticket wouldn’t have, let’s do it.  That way our officers won’t be back in a week, or a day, or sometimes even within the hour dealing with the exact same person for the exact same issue, which is what often happens now.  However, if someone needs to go to jail, they’re going to jail.  This isn’t about officers turning a blind eye when a homeless person breaks the law- it’s about finding real solutions to the problems.

One of the biggest reasons for the success of the HOT program in Colorado Springs is that it brought together all of the people who deal with the homeless issue in that community in one way or another; from charities and non-profits to government run service agencies to law enforcement and emergency medical services.  All of these groups had the same mission of reducing homelessness, but they often worked independently instead of as a team.  Once the police officers knew which places offered what kind of help, they could act as liaisons for the homeless in getting them the help they needed.  The more people who get the help they need the fewer people we have to deal with as police officers and voila! – the problem is reduced.

So what can these officers do that they’re not doing already?  We’re still working on that answer as we figure out exactly what our program will involve.  Certainly the Colorado Springs Police Department’s plan has some intriguing elements.  For example, their HOT officers have successfully reunited homeless people with family members that agree to help them get back on their feet.  The officers also worked with their city leaders to “develop and implement an enforceable No Camping Ordinance.”  Instead of living next to recreational trails and other places where they are not wanted, the HOT officers used their strong connections with homeless service providers to get the people into better housing or shelters.  We will take into account all of the tips we picked up from our research of the Colorado Springs model as we develop one that will work for Grand Junction.

One thing we hoped would happen, and we’re already seeing evidence of it, is that we may be able to use this team to help solve some major crimes.  We had our first example this week, when our detectives were handed information about a serious assault that recently happened.  The detectives first looked at the case on Tuesday and solicited help from the three officers who will eventually make up our homeless outreach team.  This unit doesn’t officially start until January and we don’t even have a name for them yet but they are already starting to build connections and relationships with some of our local homeless people.  The three officers were able to work their way through the camps on the river talking to anybody they came across, which resulted in the officers being able to identify several potential witnesses.  The detectives working the case talked with the witnesses and were able to identify a suspect by Wednesday afternoon.  Before the detectives could finish writing up a warrant the homeless outreach officers found the suspect and arrested him on probable cause.  This is exactly why we are forming this unit.  The nature of our jobs requires our officers to have direct contact with the homeless people in the camps along the river, and by building relationships and connections with them we can work on reducing homelessness in our community while at the same time solving some major crimes.

There’s something that’s important to note here: this is not THE solution to the homeless problem in Grand Junction, nor is it THE answer that will completely satisfy people on both sides of this fiery debate.  There’s also the fact that some people simply don’t want to be helped, and there is likely little we’ll be able to do about that.  But we do believe this is the exact kind of out-of-the-box thinking that will hopefully get us on a path toward reducing the homeless problem in Grand Junction, and that’s something both sides can agree is the right thing to do.

 

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