San Diego Police officers are handing out more tickets to homeless people across the city as part of a push to address homelessness.
Data obtained by NBC 7 Investigates shows in 2018 police officers in San Diego issued 5,910 encroachment tickets in San Diego, a nearly 300 percent increase from 2013 when officers issued 1,413 encroachment citations.
The data shows tickets for encroachment, illegal lodging, and loitering has increased dramatically from year to year since 2013.
It also provides a look inside the city’s strategy to solve rising homelessness in San Diego and shows the department has turned to cite homeless people as a way to deter public loitering and gathering.
Walter Howard can attest to that strategy.
In September 2018, Howard, an elderly homeless man walked outside of a 7/11 convenience store at the corner of Beech and State Streets in Downtown. Two San Diego Police Officers approached Howard moments after he set his backpack down on the sidewalk.
The interaction was recorded on an officer’s body camera and ended with Howard receiving an encroachment citation.
Attorney Scott Dreher helped Howard fight his ticket.
“If that’s the real interpretation of the statute, that’s ridiculous,” said Dreher. “You can’t set something down for a few moments?”
A judge later dismissed Howard’s case. Dreher says the encroachment statute was actually written to stop homeowners from leaving trash cans on the sidewalk after collection day, not as a tool to address homelessness.
But that changed, as can be seen in a June 2014 email obtained by NBC 7.In the email, police officers from the Western Division spoke of the use of the encroachment citation as one of the tools officers can use to “handle transients.”
“It is a bookable offense,” reads the email. “...so when you see someone’s tent, backpack, shelter, or stuff sprawled in the park, making the space unusable to the normal citizenry, you can use this section.”
Among the other tools, according to the email, officers can offer to call the Homeless Outreach Team to provide help and resources. If officers run into the same individual on numerous occasions then they are encouraged to write citations for illegal lodging and encroachment.
Scott Wahl is a Captain of the San Diego Police Department’s Neighborhood Policing Division. “Some of the conditions on these streets are deplorable. They’re not healthy, they’re not safe and the homeless population pays the price the most when we look the other way. So we’re proud of the fact we’re out here doing something about it.”
But the City has been challenged over the enforcement strategy. In 2017, several people sued the city for issuing enforcement citations.
Dreher has sued and won several landmark cases against the city on behalf of homeless people, says the city is targeting the homeless population.
“Bottom line: The court said you can’t cite for sleeping between 10 pm and 6 am,” said Dreher. “So in 2014, someone in the police department figured out they can use the encroachment statute regardless of the time of day.”
Added Dreher, “It’s carte blanche to do anything to anybody, anytime somebody sets something down. And they only use it against homeless people.”
Dreher said by using that logic, homeless individuals would be forced to carry their belongings with them at all times, never allowed to set any items on the ground.
According to the data, while a vast majority of citations and arrests occurred in the City’s East Village neighborhood, the highest increase in citations and arrests from 2013 to 2018 happened along Sports Arena Boulevard. In 2013, only five arrests and citations were made or issued on Sports Arena Boulevard. In 2018, that number ballooned to 133 arrests and citations.
Similar increases were seen on Pacific Highway, where 139 more arrests and citations were made in 2018 compared to 2013; or on Park Avenue where 44 arrests and citations occurred in 2013 versus 140 in 2018.
In regards to Howard’s encroachment citation, Dreher says homeless people are also hard-pressed to appear in Kearny Mesa for the misdemeanor citations.
“The City Attorney never appears for these cases, in derogation of its prosecutorial obligations and duties,” said Dreher. “The City and City Attorney’s Office receives significant 'administrative fees' in these cases.”
Captain Wahl met with NBC 7 Investigates on 17th Street, one block north of Imperial Avenue where more than a thousand citations and arrests have been issued for encroachment and illegal lodging since 2013.
“The public right of way needs to be clean, safe and healthy for everyone,” Wahl told NBC 7. “Oftentimes it’s misconstrued that enforcing the law means that we don’t have compassion. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Wahl told NBC 7 that citations are the last resort. Officers are trained to offer help first, and tickets and citations after the fourth interaction. He said people who are homeless can leave their belongings at the city’s storage facilities as an alternative to leaving them on the street.
“But at the end of the day, if they’re going to refuse all the help that’s out there, we’ve got the very difficult job of enforcing the law.”
As for the increase in tickets, Wahl said part of the reason for the uptick was the response to the Hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 people between 2016 and 2017.
The data obtained by NBC 7 Investigates shows the number of citations has steadily increased from 2013. Only two months during the peak months of the Hepatitis A outbreak, May and September of 2017, had a high citation and arrest count. Five months that had the highest citation and arrest count were in 2018.
Meanwhile, San Diego’s City Attorney and Dreher will meet this week for a settlement conference in the class-action lawsuit over the encroachment citations.
“Problem is no one wants a day center in their neighborhood,” said Dreher. “No one wants them in the park. So give them a place to go. Let’s come up with some housing for people. Lots of them have mental issues, we need to find out what’s wrong with the homeless and give them someplace to go.”