There have been calls for the Mount Shasta Police Department to take action and demand that the homeless move on and stay away from public spaces. Police Chief Parish Cross explained there are freedom of speech, freedom of travel, and freedom of assembly issues that preclude simply removing people from public places.
For some, street people and homeless are a blight on the community and many residents feel their presence prevents them from accessing public places such as Parker Plaza and the Mount Shasta City Park.
There have been calls for the Mount Shasta Police Department to take action and demand that the homeless move on and stay away from public spaces.
The Mount Shasta City Council recently passed several ordinances aimed at private property that provide for the police to respond to complaints by business owners, place controls on consumption of alcohol in public places, define as illegal certain activities involved in loitering, and place constraints on “aggressive panhandling.”
MSPD Chief Parish Cross explained there are freedom of speech, freedom of travel, and freedom of assembly issues that preclude simply removing people from public places.
“We can’t just kick people out of town or from public places with no reason,” Cross said. “We deal with negative behavior, not appearances.”
The history of vagrancy and loitering laws, dating back to post Civil War attempts to constrain freed slaves, has resulted in continuing legal challenges, and the courts often finding them unconstitutional. For further reading, go to the following online resources:
• www.bu.edu/pilj/files/2015/09/18-2CharlesNote.pdf; and
Cross said it is a misconception that the homeless are responsible for a crime wave in the city.
He said the majority of legal problems with the homeless are misdemeanors including smoking, drinking and trespassing.
“They are not the people committing the serious crimes,” Cross said. “However, they do take up a disproportionate amount of police time.”
MSPD Lt. Joe Restine noted that the new city ordinances have had a positive effect.
“Due to the new city codes, we probably have less intoxication,” Restine said. “We do foot patrols and spread the word around on behavior expectations.”
Mental health problems are one of the thorniest issues facing the homeless and the police. Under section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, police officers can determine that a person is a danger to himself or others and ask that they be evaluated and treated at a locked facility.
“It’s a difficult situation. We have limited mental health staff,” Restine said.
Suspected mental health problems are taken to the Dignity emergency room and a Siskiyou County Behavioral Health worker – someone is on duty 24/7 365 days year – is notified to come to the ER. They take over the case to determine if the person needs to be locked in a facility and, if necessary, provide transportation.
“Often times, they are given medication and released the next day,” Restine said.
Restine noted that it can require two or even three officers to control a combative mental health person. Chief Cross said it is not the department’s intention to write as many citations as possible.
He explained that officers do not always write violations for misdemeanors such as open container. In some cases the alcohol is dumped and a warning is issued.
“There is the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Officers have discretion,” Cross said.
Restine noted that more serious issues may intervene that preclude writing a violation for a misdemeanor.
“We are a small department and there are often other calls coming in,” Restine said.
Cross said there is a concerted effort by the department to engage with the homeless population.
“We have better relations with them than people believe,” Cross said. “The department continues to take the high road and welcomes all visitors to this town and expects all visitors to follow the rules.”
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