Photo by Adam Wickham

LAST YEAR, Portland police and county prosecutors hit on a new way to tackle the unsightly nuisance crimes they said were flourishing downtown.

Beginning in June 2013, people caught drinking in public, urinating, or littering multiple times could be arrested for violating a statute that outlaws "interfering with a peace officer." Issuing that charge, otherwise known as an IPO, gave officers the ability to book offenders in jail—impossible for mere littering or urination citations—and earned defendants an arrest warrant if they failed to show up to court.

The effort had a name—the "Chronic Offender Pilot Project," or COPP—and formal memos laying out its strategies. But months after COPP's implementation, Portland police quietly began using the same principle for different offenses, the Mercury has learned.

Since at least last August, Portland police have been arresting homeless people under the IPO statute for camping or erecting makeshift structures on the sidewalk. According to documents obtained from the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office via a public records request, prosecutors have issued nearly 40 IPO cases related to camping or illegal structures in the last year—the vast majority of them based on citations in January, one of Portland's coldest and soggiest months.

Some of the defendants are frequent offenders, warned for days or weeks on end that their structures would have to go. Others received one warning at most. Either way, the prospect of arresting people for sleeping outside when they have few other options raises questions among homelessness advocates—even those who cautiously accepted using the same strategy to target nuisance behaviors like public drinking.

"We shouldn't be using IPO as a tool when we don't have real alternatives, when people are being forced to sleep on the street," says Monica Goracke, an attorney with the Oregon Law Center who's represented homeless campers. "This is concerning."

COPP began in June 2013, and explicitly targeted the problematic shenanigans of the young "travelers" who descend on Portland in the summer months. Then, in April 2014, prosecutors announced they were letting the program fade away. That wasn't long after an inquiry from the Mercury unearthed the fact that COPP was mistakenly being used to enforce the city's sidewalk ordinance, for which it was never intended ["Bending the Law," News, February 26]. The program also drew the ire of City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who said she was "horrified and very disturbed."

In COPP's wake, the DA's office released a new policy: Prosecutors would still issue IPO charges to people based on drinking, urinating, and littering offenses, but camping and erecting structures laws would be folded into the mix. According to the policy, officers had to warn offenders that their conduct was illegal and hand them a resource guide showing where social services are available. If the person was caught again, cops could make the case that he or she had refused to "obey a lawful order." Interfering with a peace officer is a Class A misdemeanor.

What no one mentioned, back in April, was that police had already been using the interference law for months to target an influx of homeless campers in the city's central eastside—a tactic prosecutors say police cribbed from COPP.

"They were using IPO to address a problem that was significant in their district," says Chuck Sparks, a chief deputy in the district attorney's office. "The structures were causing problems to people who have businesses. We all need to use the sidewalk."

On the morning of August 7, Central Precinct officer Christopher Gjovik visited a large campsite under the east end of the Morrison Bridge. On each of the previous two days, he'd stopped by to warn campers sheltering in roughly a dozen makeshift tents they'd have to move on. Now, on his third visit, Gjovik once again found a man named James Warnock living under the bridge.

"This case was generated due to a large volume of complaints that patrol officers and I have received regarding illegal camping and structures," Gjovik wrote in a report.

The 30-year-old Warnock asked the officer to "just give me one more chance," Gjovik wrote. "I told (Warnock) that I thought if I gave him a third chance that it would most likely look the same tomorrow."

Warnock was taken to the Multnomah County Detention Center, where he was likely released the same day. Records indicate he was eventually found guilty of reduced charges.

Two others were arrested for the same reasons that day, records suggest, but the police bureau's use of interfering charges for camping-related offenses subsided over the rest of 2013. The lull ended in January, when it appears police began a concerted effort to crack down on campsites in the central eastside. Prosecutors issued 24 IPO charges related to camping and structures violations in January alone. Some of those charges were one-offs. Others were issued to the same person multiple times.

A 24-year-old woman named Holly Kleinow was contacted by police and cited for illegal camping and littering on January 22, 24, and 28, records show. They found her in different locations each time—often living in squalor with other campers, with mildew-blackened blankets, drug paraphernalia, and containers of human waste nearby. In each instance, she was issued a ticket instead of being taken to jail. When cops found Kleinow at a fourth location January 30, they arrested her for interfering.

Prosecutors charged her with IPO for each of the four police contacts, a move that marked her as a "chronic offender" and effectively eliminated the chance her charges might be reduced to violations. Records show that Kleinow spent 10 days in jail. Other repeat offenders have been held for months.

Days after Kleinow's late January arrest, Police Chief Mike Reese made a pitch to local justice officials on a new plan to curb problematic homelessness in the city. Dubbed "Prosper Portland" the plan called for stepped-up efforts in enforcement, and clean-up contractors who could disassemble campsites broken up by police. Those elements have since been instituted. Reese made no mention of the bureau's increased use of the IPO law to arrest homeless campers.

The police bureau didn't respond to requests for comment on the effort by deadline, but Mayor Charlie Hales, the city's police commissioner, has been aware of the practice for months, his office says. In a lengthy statement, spokesman Dana Haynes laid out the policy, and noted that Hales made increasing funds for homeless services a main focus of this year's budget.

"People without homes have rights," Haynes says. "But people with homes have rights as well. And we're attempting to balance both things."

The mayor's office gets calls every week, Haynes says, saying it's not doing enough to help the homeless, but also that it's not doing enough to stop illegal camping.

"I suspect the sentiments, though opposites, are both true," he wrote.

As with COPP, the new approach to camping is lauded by prosecutors.

"I commend them for the approach," Sparks says. "The inner eastside was becoming a problem. Drug use, human waste—when your business is by that, people stop coming around."

Besides, prosecutors say, issuing an IPO charge increases the likelihood offenders will have to go before a judge and, once again, be offered a chance to turn things around.

"The police are offering services, and community court offers services," says Deputy DA Jim Hayden. "The goal has never been punitive."

The problem, advocates for the homeless say, is that there aren't always good options. Whereas COPP singled out problematic behavior, using the IPO law to arrest campers risks penalizing people who are just trying to live. Simply handing out a booklet containing phone numbers and addresses of social services agencies isn't enough to change that.

At the last formal count in January 2013, social services workers found nearly 2,900 people in Portland were either sleeping outside or in emergency shelters. According to numbers provided by local organization 211info, there are only about 700 emergency shelter beds available in Portland year-round, with about 300 more available in the winter.

"That's not real housing, and that's not real services," Goracke says of the resource booklets given to homeless campers. "They should be handing out that booklet, but they shouldn't then be saying people have plenty of options."