Speaking before the Metro Homelessness Commission during a hearing in March 2009, Steve Reiter talked about a trend he’d noticed of social profiling by Metro police against the city’s homeless population. With pressure on police from downtown residents and property owners who were now looking out their windows to discover that homeless people actually exist and tend to congregate in open public spaces, Reiter believed he saw a pattern of police singling out the homeless on sometimes-murky quality-of-life violations — such as public intoxication or loitering. Amid the influx of urban dwellers spurred by the building of more and more downtown condos, tensions were mounting.
It had become, in his mind, the Metro Nashville Police Department’s attempt to shoo the homeless away from areas such as Riverfront Park and Church Street Park by increasing their presence, writing more citations, making more arrests and even adding narrative to citations after the fact to further justify the encounters. It appears he was right: From 2004 to 2009, arrest data show an approximately 500 percent increase in arrests for obstructing a passageway, with homeless people accounting for between 60 and 81 percent of them. Public intoxication arrests more than doubled during that period.
Reiter, an advocate for the homeless, thought police were pushing the limits of civil rights laws, and he believed he could make a legal case of it.
But in response, the Homelessness Commission created the Committee on Police/Homeless Issues as an effort to bring together players from the criminal justice system, the homeless community and outreach workers. The committee sought to open discussion on a burgeoning problem: Criminalizing homelessness to the point where police officers on the street, and then often the jails themselves, had become the primary clearinghouses for Nashville’s troubled indigents. Unusually, it was the criminal justice system providing social services to the city’s most vulnerable citizens.
“In some ways, it’s an impossible task if we make the police the frontline social workers in our city,” said Fr. Charles Strobel, committee chairman, recognizing the need to address larger issues of affordable housing and adequate social-services resources.
Two years after the committee was created, on Friday, March 4, its members reported to the Homelessness Commission that the criminal justice system had become the “default manager” of downtown’s “homeless problem,” that all involved in the issue must keep an open dialogue, and that all homeless people downtown should not be “lumped” together into one problem category.
The committee recommended adopting the “spirit” of an American Bar Association recommendation to repeal certain quality-of-life ordinances affecting the non-criminal homeless population. And it officially endorsed the practice of police officers taking those charged with public intoxication to the Room In the Inn’s Guest House instead of jail.
What it did not do was reach consensus on a single best-practice model to move forward but instead offered up the notion that Metro should create its own tailored combination of initiatives to address the rift between the homeless population and the criminal justice system.
Presented with that, the Homelessness Commission elected to form another committee to further examine the ABA recommendations and bring its own set of offerings in the future — and thus, it kicked the can right on down the road.
Meanwhile, Metro police have gone rogue on the commission: On Jan. 1, the department moved forward with a program that “flags” homeless chronic offenders, giving them the maximum possible sentences upon conviction with the hope they’ll either receive needed assessment in jail or be held long enough for social services agencies to step in. Although this was a controversial topic in the committee’s discussions, the police proceeded without buy-in from the homeless or social-services sets.
It would seem, aside from continued dialogue on police and homeless interaction (something both sides applaud), the committee — and by proxy the commission — has spent two years returning to the start. And there is little to show but a renewed irritation between police and the city’s homeless constituents.
Included in a set of five systemic improvements listed in the committee’s report were a “single point of entry” model providing homeless persons one location to be assessed and receive social-service referrals; a homeless court similar to the drug and mental health courts that are already operational; a court diversion program that offers the homeless facing minor criminal charges a chance to participate in intensive treatment programs at Room In the Inn rather than face extended jail time; and the Guest House Services program that’s been in place since 1991.
But the proposed change labeled in the committee’s report as “enhanced sentencing” has caused the latest squabble between the homeless and the police.
Deputy Chief Damian Huggins said the chronic offender program simply uses maximum sentences already in place and had been in the works for more than a year before it took effect on Jan. 1.
The initiative allows police officers to tag those individuals with 17 or more convictions in a 12-month timeframe. When officers on the street run the names of individuals who are chronic offenders, they’re alerted to those who qualify. And when officers flag an arrestee as a chronic offender, a notation on the jail docket signals prosecutors to hold that person as long as legally possible rather than send him back on the street.
“[The chronic offender program] holds them accountable for their own actions but puts them in a place where the resources are notified,” said Huggins, who until last October served on the police/homeless committee as the commander of the Central Precinct. Cmdr. Jason Reinbold now serves in that role.
Huggins said the technology could also be used to notify officers of any social services available for chronic offenders, such as housing vouchers through the Veterans’ Administration that might be applicable. So far this year, four such offenders have been connected with housing, he said.
“It’s beyond any criminal application,” Huggins said. “It’s a public service application.”
Jeff Blum, mental health coordinator with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, noted a recent case in which a flagged person who was in housing and working with a case manager was going to be held for the maximum sentence. Blum discussed the case with the District Attorney’s Office, and the “flag” was removed. That led to an understanding among the parties that maximum sentencing isn’t mandatory but discretionary based on the circumstances involved.
But Reiter said labeling someone as a chronic offender prior to an initial court appearance is “problematic” because only the facts and circumstances surrounding a violation should be relevant, and officers flagging offenders is “sending a message to the judge that you should not be sending, because everybody has the presumption of innocence.”
Clifton Harris is the director of The Key Alliance, which is the Homelessness Commission’s fundraising arm, and he coordinates permanent housing for some of the city’s neediest.
“You can’t arrest your way out of [the homelessness problem], and going through the court system is not the way to get out of it, either,” Harris said.
The committee never reached consensus about implementing the chronic-offender program. In fact, committee members weren’t notified of the decision to go ahead with the program, and — according to the report — “many of them expressed disappointment … given the lack of consensus regarding the propriety of the program.”
Huggins maintained that members were aware of the initiative as well as the plans to put it into effect on Jan. 1, following the change of command in the Central Precinct last fall. But Erik Cole, chairman of the Homelessness Commission and a Metro Council member, said the commission found out at its January meeting that the program had been put in place.
“The committee tried to sort out exactly how that was going on — who had authorized it and all that — and we’re going to continue that dialogue in the hope of finding a middle ground that works for all parties,” Cole said.
The controversial program isn’t the only source of conflict among those involved.
Over the course of the last few meetings of police and homeless advocates, the conversation turned to one of the ABA’s recommendations opposing those federal, state and local quality-of-life laws and policies that appear to punish otherwise non-criminal homeless people trying to exist in public places when there are no other places to go.
In what would appear to be jaw-dropping numbers, the report outlines Nashville arrest data from 2004 to 2009 provided by the Criminal Justice Planning Department regarding disorderly conduct, littering, indecent exposure, obstructing a passageway, public indecency, public intoxication and criminal trespass: There has been an approximately 500 percent increase in arrests for obstructing a passageway, with homeless people making up anywhere from 60 percent to 81 percent of those arrested. Physical arrests for public intoxication, according to data in the report, rose from 2,029 in 2004 to 5,031 in 2009, with the percentage of homeless defendants arrested showing a steady increase.
The report states that in 2004, the percentage of arrests for all seven offenses involving homeless people rose from 36 percent to 50 percent, consistently increasing across each offense except disorderly conduct, which reportedly dropped by 3 percent.
Asked about the numbers in the report, police told The City Paper they reflect a philosophical change that former Chief Ronal Serpas brought to the department that pushed for increases in traffic stops and other “self-initiated activity,” as Huggins called it.
“We were, as an agency, making more arrests as a whole,” Reinbold said. “… If you look at our — you already know this — traffic stops [were] out of the roof from ’04, unrelated to these quality-of-life concerns.”
Reinbold said those numbers were used to suggest that police were targeting the homeless “when the target was the criminal element, anyone in the whole county.”
Downtown in the Central Precinct, where the tension between police and the homeless is by far the greatest, Huggins said the department “had to show a presence.” He pointed to an increase in special events downtown, as well as requests from resident groups for a police response to activity by the homeless in areas around the state Capitol and the public parks. He acknowledged last summer’s increase in police presence at Church Street Park — known as an area frequented by homeless individuals — came after the downtown group Nashville Urban Residents Association raised concerns about problems such as public urination and intoxication.
Reinbold said that initiative has now spread to a greater downtown area, though the department has stopped pulling officers from other precincts to help.
“We’re going to hold people accountable,” Reinbold said. “It has no bearing on social status, racial status [etc.] … . Those factors are out the window.”
Hershell Warren, Mayor Karl Dean’s representative on the Homelessness Commission, balked at the vote to endorse the ABA recommendations. He said relaxing laws and policies for low-level violations by the less-fortunate without further study first would’ve been the wrong move for the city.
The commission ended up voting to adopt the “spirit” of the recommendations and further evaluate how such a step would affect Nashville.
The commission did vote, however, to approve the police/homeless committee’s recommendation to endorse the practice of police officers transporting homeless people arrested for public intoxication to the Room In the Inn’s Guest House as an alternative to jail — something that police and Room In the Inn have partnered on for the last two decades but Strobel believes had fallen off in the past year.
“You see in the report there’s a general consensus that we all recognize we don’t have enough resources engaged in this problem,” Cole said. “And unfortunately police are the first point of contact … with homeless individuals.”
Cole said the next incarnation of the committee would specifically review the ABA recommendation to see how it could be implemented in Nashville, as well as ordinances such as the anti-panhandling legislation that passed a couple years ago and criminalizes begging. Any recommendations for action by the committee, however, will face the reality of finite and very limited resources at the city’s disposal.
“At the end of the day, this stuff should all result in either federal grant applications or trying to turn over rocks to find funding,” Cole said.
They’ll also face the police department’s reluctance to change their posture toward homeless low-level offenders.
“I think we have a greater focus now,” Reiter, the homeless advocate, said. “I think everybody knows where our various positions are. I understand the police department better. I think they understand our position better.”
With a growing downtown residential population and concern for the rights of the existing homeless population, Cole said all involved face a ticking clock on a complex issue.
For Strobel, the committee offered a new forum for the homeless community.
“The fact that we call them ‘homeless’ indcates that they have no homes,” he said. “But they also have no voices [in government].”