- Adam Wickham
As the Mercury reported in today's issue, a fairly new effort from police and prosecutors has aimed tougher enforcement at certain nuisance crimes often affiliated with homelessness, but not too many people know it exists.
Among those left in the dark: Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who in recent months spearheaded an effort to find a new home for the Right 2 Dream Too rest area. And to say Fritz is not pleased might be putting it mildly.
The commissioner was "horrified and very disturbed," she says, to learn of the so-called Chronic Offender Pilot Project (COPP) today. She thinks Mayor Charlie Hales—commissioner in charge of the Portland Police Bureau—should have briefed her on the policy change.
"I've been quite involved in houselessness issues and caring for people that live outside," Fritz tells the Mercury. "The communication obviously is lacking, and how to correct that more than a year into this council is an ongoing challenge."
The COPP takes a novel approach to certain crimes—littering, public intoxication, public urination—which have historically been treated lightly. Whereas offenders in past years were cited, given a court date, and met virtually no consequences if they didn't show, the COPP targets lawbreakers with arrest, then bench warrants if they miss a court date.
To do so, the Portland police and the Multnomah County District Attorney's office are leveraging the state's "interfering with a peace officer" law, which makes it a class A misdemeanor to refuse "to obey a lawful order." Under COPP, cops who see a person littering/drinking/peeing in public issue a warning and put the person on a list. If the offender is caught literring/drinking/peeing again, they're taken to jail for not following the earlier order.
The project began last summer, and cops and prosecutors say its intent is two-fold: to persuade people to seek treatment, and to persuade people to leave Portland.
According to a procedure document detailing the program, it "should serve to make Portland less attractive to people who want to come here and openly violate the law and degrade community livability." That's a fairly bald reference to the "travelers" known to descend on Portland during the summer, a group that's been a focus of police lately, especially since a teen struck a septuagenarian with a skateboard last summer.
"We found the guy who hit somebody with a skateboard and he's going to jail for five years," Fritz says. "That's a problem. That's criminal behavior. Littering twice is not criminal behavior."
Fritz appears to be weighing her options. She holds a weekly meeting with Hales—it was yesterday—and he's never mentioned the policy change despite her work around homelessness. She intends to bring it up next week.
"We're in a (US) Department of Justice settlement agreement," Fritz says. " We understand that some of those interactions (between police and the homeless) in the past have not turned out well.
"I can no longer sit back and say: 'I'm not the police commissioner. This is not my problem.'"
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Hales, Dana Haynes, says the mayor's aware of the policy. And, though he hadn't fully read the Mercury's story, he took issue with a headline reading "A Tough New Policy Targets the Homeless."
"We are going to disagree with you that it is targeting the homeless," Haynes says.