Local law enforcement and government look for ways to lessen vagrancy

PANAMA CITY — A police officer snapped a picture of a man sleeping beneath a no trespassing sign and submitted it as evidence in a court case against him.

It might seem like an open-and-shut trespass case — and it was — but the case was dismissed.

There are strict legal requirements businesses must follow for no trespassing signs to be considered valid, and the ones in that case didn’t make the mark. Assistant State Attorney Robert Ball wrote about the case in a letter to Dutch Sanger, director of the Downtown Improvement Board, to explain why some cases of trespass are prosecuted and others are not.

The stringent requirements of that law and the vagueness of others are some of the issues law enforcement officers face as they try to police the vagrancy problems in Bay County, local officials have said.

Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen recently was requested by the Bay County Commission to write a report on vagrancy. In it, he wrote about the challenges, causes and effects it’s having on the county in general and Panama City in particular.

Addressing the homelessness problem isn’t solely a law enforcement issue, he said, but law enforcement should be part of the solution.

“Somewhere, somehow, someway, someone has to sit down and determine what laws are being violated,” McKeithen said in an interview.

One person who is doing that is Panama City Commissioner John Kady. He, of course, is not acting alone, but he was appointed by the City Commission to lead a task force to look into ways to address vagrancy through strengthening ordinances and enacting police initiatives.

In two reports, McKeithen’s report shed light on several problems, including that the state prison system dropped prisoners off at the Panama City Rescue Mission, that a number of homeless would like to leave the area but cannot afford to, and from Jan.1 through Sept. 12, 257 people arrested claimed the Rescue Mission as home.

Kady said he is using that report and another written by Panama City Police Deputy Police Chief Scott Ervin for background. Ervin did not respond to repeated requests for an interview made over several weeks through the department’s public information officer, Sgt. Jeff Becker.

“The challenge is one of protecting property rights, the civil rights of people,” Kady said.

McKeithen agreed, and said it’s important to make sure any law enacted is equally applied, whether someone is homeless or not.

 

Signs and ordinances

Among Kady’s ideas is to make it easier for businesses to take the steps required by state law to post legally acceptable no trespassing signs at their businesses.

Instead of waiting for a business to contact law enforcement, he suggested sending letters to all property owners with an enclosed letter they can sign and mail back, giving the police department the ability to issue trespass warnings to people. Officers would then go to the business and post no trespassing signs so business owners could be confident they are posted appropriately.

Kady said he’s also looking through the city’s ordinances and comparing them with other cities to find ways to more effectively prevent unwanted behavior and prosecute crime. He said Panama City has a bigger vagrancy problem than other cities of comparable size. In his report, McKeithen wrote he estimates there are 70 to 80 vagrants who live in Panama City.

In some instances, that means bolstered laws. There isn’t a lot of detail in the regulations on parks and other public spaces, he said, including hours of operation and permissible activities.

When it comes to issues like panhandling and loitering, it’s more difficult to make the city’s laws more stringent, he said.

Asking for money is protected by the First Amendment, according to a 2009 report by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless, “Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.”

Beyond regulating individuals’ activities, Kady said there is a need to enact and enforce regulations that deal with the upkeep of property and the effect a business’s clientele has on neighbors. That likely would go along with the creation of a nuisance abatement board, Kady said.

In Seattle, for example, a property can be declared a chronic nuisance if there are three or more nuisance activities during a 60-day period or seven or more nuisance activities within a 12-month period. Nuisance activities include drug-related activity, assault, fighting, harassment, prostitution, obstructing traffic and gang-related activity, among other crimes.

If a property is declared a chronic nuisance, a “correction agreement” is made with the city, which requires action. In addition, “the person in charge is subject to a penalty of up to $500 per day” until the property is no longer considered a chronic nuisance. A property owner who does not comply with the correction agreement can face a fine of up to $25,000.

Closer to home, Tallahassee is among cities with nuisance abatement boards to address concerns. A premises that has been used for certain drug-related crimes, gambling, prostitution or gang activity or repeated noise violations can be considered a public nuisance.

Any city employee, officer or resident can file a written complaint with the police department, which is forwarded to the city attorney’s office for determination about whether the complaint should be forwarded to the board. If it’s forwarded, the board holds a hearing to determine whether to declare the property a public nuisance, and, if so, can take action, including a fine of $250 for an initial finding of a public nuisance and a $500 fine for each subsequent public nuisance.

Those sorts of regulations protect neighboring property owners, who can be negatively affected through lower property values, Kady said.

The effects extend even further, McKeithen said.

“There could be a myth out there that this vagrant issue in downtown Panama City only affects the people in downtown Panama City. That’s not exactly 100 percent accurate,” he said.

The impact might be most obvious to residents and business owners in the immediate area, but it affects every other taxpayer in Bay County.

He estimated it costs about $50 a day to house someone in the Bay County Jail. During a meeting in October, members of the city’s homeless task force, a separate group than the one headed by Kady, said the cost of providing resources to the homeless is less than the cost of jail.

In their report, The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless cited a 2004 study by the Lewin Group that suggested “jail costs were two to three times higher than permanent supporting housing or shelter costs.”

 

Law enforcement

Some of the problems that affect the way social service organizations are able to help vagrants also affect the way vagrants respond to law enforcement efforts.

Some have mental or physical disabilities and some have addictions; in some instances it’s “not like dealing with a normal person who follows normal guidelines and leads a normal life,” McKeithen said.

For some, jail might not be a deterrent, especially if the sentence is three to four days. A longer sentence could have more of an impact, he said, but the sentencing must fit the crime.

The law enforcement presence downtown, bolstered through a substation located on Sixth Street, blocks away from the Rescue Mission, has had a positive effect, Kady said.

No matter how many laws are passed and how strict the penalties, though, “We still can’t police it away,” McKeithen said.

He has worked with the Rescue Mission’s board of directors to enact new policies, including one that “anyone cited for panhandling, loitering or trespassing in Bay County will forfeit the opportunity for any services at (the Mission) for 30 days or more.” The Rescue Mission also has requested that agencies no longer list homeless people as living there unless they have a notarized letter of approval and more stringent regulations about who is allowed to stay there are in effect.

Kady said he would like to have the city formalize those agreements and reach an agreement with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office to allow deputies to enforce municipal laws within the city limits.

Other ideas Kady plans to present to the commission next month include regulations preventing public feeding, which he said can make the problem worse. For years, a group of local churches have been feeding the homeless twice a week in downtown Panama City.

Kady said he hopes the city can move quickly on some law enforcement aspects and provide funding if needed for enhanced police initiatives.

Many of these ideas are a great start but the community as a whole has still been unable to address the “elephant in the room”…the rescue mission itself. Until the rescue mission is relocated, the actions of our local officials will be only a bandaid on the problem. Mayor Brudnicki has shown much courage in exploring alternate sights that will enable our community to continue to service and perhaps better service those in need while removing the toxic effects of a facility in our commercial  and retail spaces in the downtown area.

Read more: http://www.newsherald.com/articles/solutions-98342-vagrancy-city.html#ixzz1f1J5Exe4

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