- Adam Wickham
The Multnomah County District Attorney's office has formally scrapped a controversial enforcement program aimed at problematic nuisance crimes.
But to say the Chronic Offender Pilot Project is dead isn't quite accurate. Its heart beats on in a robust new enforcement policy unveiled by the DA's office today, and the consequences might be big for Multnomah County's homeless.
First, a review: The COPP, revealed by the Mercury in February, sought to stiffen penalties against people—many of them homeless—who committed quality of life crimes in the downtown core or Lloyd District.
Under the policy, cops could issue a warning to people caught littering or drinking/urinating in public. Then, if officers caught the same person doing one of those things later on, they could arrest the person for "interfering with a police officer." That meant a trip to jail and a court date, plus an arrest warrant if offenders failed to show up. People who satisfied court requirements for treatment would have their charges dismissed.
The policy angered at least one city commissioner, and drew criticism from public defenders and civil liberties advocates. And the Mercury's inquiry brought to light that police had been mistakenly using COPP to arrest people for sidewalk violations, which was never intended.
Less than two months later, COPP is over with, says Chuck Sparks, a chief deputy in the district attorney's office. And while he argues the policy that's sprouted up in its place is a whole new effort, it's mostly distinguished by a broad expansion of the old program.
Under the new rules, cops can arrest and charge people for interfering with a police officer throughout Portland and Gresham—not just downtown and the Lloyd District. And the new policy goes beyond drinking, peeing and littering. It's opened up its arms to two crimes even more likely to touch the city's homeless: "camping on public property" and "erecting structures."
Despite all that, Sparks argues the new policy amounts to a "substantial narrowing," because the DA's office will now require "documented prior referral(s) to an identified social service agency." In other words, in addition to warning an offender, police also have to tell them where they can get help, and write down that they delivered that message in a police report.
"We’ve moved onto a different issuing standard that imposes more requirements on the police bureau," Sparks said. "It’s appropriate, and I think it’s something that the police bureau is interested in doing, which is reaching out to to these folks and giving them fair warning. I don’t think we’ve ever had that requirement."
Here's the formal policy:
Sparks wouldn't go into detail on who'd had input on the changes, only saying it "was not done is a vacuum" and that law enforcement officials are aware of update.
It is, of course, impossible to say what effect the policies will have. When COPP began in June of last year, cops and prosecutors hoped that it would meaningfully curb problem activity by the city's "street kids," convincing them to get help or leave town. But despite generating hundreds of warnings, COPP had only resulted in 19 prosecutions by late February. The bulk of those were for sidewalk violations that weren't even supposed to be targeted under the program.