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Chief Koval's Blog

Dealing with "Behaviors" Not Labels

March 1, 2017 1:27 PM

Recently, one of our officers shared an email with me that was directed to members of the Homeless Services Consortium, a group comprised of volunteers, formerly homeless, some not-for-profits, and some alders.  The forwarded email referenced the recently passed traffic safety ordinance ("Entering or Staying Upon Highways Prohibited).  The author of the email suggested that MPD had not heard from or considered the perspective of homeless advocates while this ordinance has been working through the legislative process. 

MPD does not vote on potential ordinances brought before the Mayor and the Common Council.  This topic has been debated for months.  You would be hard-pressed to not have heard the robust cries from some who claim that this ordinance is yet another step toward "criminalizing the homeless."  For the record, MPD did not introduce this ordinance, and only provided comments relative to public safety concerns (when asked).

In terms of our ongoing outreach and engagement efforts, MPD has sent (and will continue to send) command staff and/or front line practitioners to groups that make timely requests for our input and participation.  Currently, I have the Central District Lieutenant regularly attending and participating on a City-County Homeless committee and a beat cop tries to attend meetings (as schedules will allow) of the Homeless Services Consortium as well.  Not to mention the fact that our officers are networking with shelters, churches, not-for-profits, volunteers, business organizations, and elected officials all the time about issues centering around homelessness.  So as you can see, MPD is not out of the loop or unaware of what's happening in the streets. 

With respect to the ordinance, (Entering or Staying Upon Highways Prohibited), here is what I wrote to a homeless advocate when word of MPD's lack of "motivation" to discuss issues in advance was inferred (while also providing a synopsis of what the MPD involvement is for the roll-out of the ordinance):

"Clearly, the Mayor and the Council struggled mightily before endorsing the ordinance that resulted and I can assure you that ticketing people is not going to be the first option.  Every attempt will be made to make our constituents aware of the new ordinance, provide a written pamphlet that describes the places and circumstances where it applies, and the pamphlet will also have a reference point for securing services.  Compliance with the safety concerns raised by the ordinance is our paramount objective . . . so verbal warnings coupled with teachable moments are the point of emphasis."

For the record, I feel the need to challenge the rhetoric behind those who contend that MPD is "criminalizing the homeless."  The overwhelming majority of our contacts with individuals, in general (including those who self-report as "homeless), does not result in tickets and/arrests.  Officers make assessments on each and every call looking at the totality of the circumstances unique to this incident---is there a mental health issue driving the behavior, intoxication, drug use, first time offender, chronic offender, likelihood of the behavior stabilizing/escalating, are there "victims" involved and what are their expectations, what is the relative "harm" caused, etc.  Our first default is not to ticket/arrest but to see if compliance can be gained through other means. Frankly, many complainants who call for our services wish we were "tougher" with offenders, but punitive measures are not going to get at the "root" causes of what may be driving behavior(s), so officers are always attempting to strike an appropriate balance of the least restrictive sanctions with the needs of public safety.

We are already seeing an increase in calls for service downtown.  Please understand that MPD will not be tolerating criminal behaviors and/or those behaviors which diminish everyone's rights of enjoyment.  If there is probable cause to believe that someone committed a crime, they will be held responsible for that prohibited behavior.  To do otherwise is an affront to victims and our role as officers of the court.  Similarly, if behavior does not rise to the level of a crime but certainly violates what I term shared "quality of life" responsibilities, those individuals will be held accountable.  Reasonable expectations?  You cannot: openly consume alcohol on our sidewalks and communal gathering spots, obstruct the doors to businesses, create disturbances, defecate at will, commit lewd acts or threaten people (to name a few). These latter items are typical of "ordinance" violations (i.e., non-crimes/forfeitures) which affect everyone's use and enjoyment of public venues and we are not going to abdicate that part of our responsibilities. 

The various behaviors that must be addressed cannot be ascribed or limited a "homelessness" problem.  We have to respond to these behaviors as they are acted out by anyone to include drunken college students or a bevy of people who have chosen to "hang out" downtown.  

Rather than deal with the misplaced notion that MPD is a part of a "problem," let me relate a recent "success" story which suggests that we are very much a part of a "solution" when it comes to helping the homeless. 

I have an officer assigned to "Day" Patrol and works predominantly downtown.  She has been working with a homeless individual who also has some mental illness issues.  Collaborating with her peers, this officer has worked tirelessly with one of our Mental Health Officer's (MHO), physician's, psychologists, mental health practitioners/service  providers, and housing specialists to try to assist this vulnerable individual. . . a person who has seen a rapid deterioration in both mental and physical health status.  Over the course of a year, the relationship of trust that has been spawned through the efforts of our officer has made it possible for this homeless person to negotiate through a labyrinth of paper and processes; taking this person under her wing and facilitating procurement of social security paperwork that is necessary to meet eligibility requirements for housing.  Similarly, given the fading condition of the individual's health, our officer advocated for pushing on the housing waiting list.  And she also bought the individual coffee gift cards . . .as a respite for getting out of the cold and warmed up!  *I am pleased to report a happy update:  this individual has been moved into housing largely due to the efforts of our officer and her co-workers!

So when you hear the worn out refrain about MPD contributing to the "criminalization" of the homeless, hit the "pause" button and understand that our officers are far more interested and dedicated to helping rather than impeding those individuals who are struggling from the effects of homelessness.

Posted by: Chief Koval

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