COPP Out 

Policy Blesses Arrest of Homeless Campers

IT WAS LAST AUGUST when Mayor Charlie Hales stood before reporters and explained that a recent round of campsite sweeps wasn't about targeting homelessness. "It's about lawlessness," the mayor said.

But eight months later, new charging guidelines from the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office will explicitly let cops blur the line between the two. Under a set of rules unveiled on April 17, homeless people across the city can be arrested for camping or erecting structures on public lands—a possibility even the most staid advocates find troublesome.

"Any time you take this issue to a level of it being a criminal act, it's completely ridiculous," says Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots. "It's one thing to target low-level offenses, it's another to throw camping in there."

The new charging policy supplants the controversial Chronic Offender Pilot Project (COPP), an enforcement tool revealed by the Mercury in February. Conceived in June 2013, COPP used the state's "interfering with a peace officer" statute to target quality-of-life crimes—and send a message that the town isn't open for business to the young travelers who come to Portland every summer.

Under that policy, cops issued warnings to people—many of them homeless—caught littering, drinking, or urinating in public. If officers saw someone repeating the behavior later on, they could make an arrest for "interfering." That meant a trip to jail and a court date, plus an arrest warrant if the person failed to show up at court.

COPP had problems. After the Mercury asked for a list of individuals who'd been arrested and prosecuted under the program, the DA's office realized police were mistakenly citing and arresting people based on Portland's sidewalk-use ordinance.

Now the DA's office says COPP is dead—but the tool that's risen in its place is really just an enhanced version.

The new policy still says cops can arrest people for interfering once they've been warned about drinking, littering, or peeing. But it also tosses in Portland's ordinances outlawing camping and "erecting structures" on public land as offenses that merit a warning. And, eventually, arrest.

Moreover, the policy expands enforcement throughout Portland and into Gresham. COPP was limited to downtown and the Lloyd District.

Despite all that, Chief Deputy District Attorney Chuck Sparks argues the new policy amounts to a "substantial narrowing." That's because the DA's office will now require "documented prior referral(s)" to a social services agency before it will file charges. In other words, in addition to warning an offender, police also have to tell them where they can find help.

"This is not COPP, and COPP is no longer in existence," says Sparks. "We've moved on to a different issuing standard that imposes more requirements on the police bureau. It's appropriate, and it's something that the police bureau is interested in doing, which is reaching out to these folks and giving them fair warning."

Sparks wouldn't comment on who'd shaped the new policy, only saying it "was not done in a vacuum."

Portland police hadn't responded to a request for comment by press time. Gresham police, however, say they didn't ask to be included.

"We are not going to implement this until further discussion," says Lieutenant Claudio Grandjean, a police spokesman. "In other words, we're not doing anything different than we're doing now, for now."

Portland police and the DA's office have been laying the groundwork for this shift for months. Prosecutors began working with police last summer on strategies for enforcing Portland's camping ban—including building stronger cases and charging people with "interfering." The new policy cements those efforts.

But Bayer—who largely held back from criticizing COPP, since it targeted actual problem behaviors—worries the guidelines will lead to more arrests and negative outcomes.

"There's no circumstance in which someone who is homeless should be arrested for sleeping outdoors," Bayer says. "Period."

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