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Downtown dilemma: Problems center around lack of options

City steps up community policing, looks at ordinances

Posted: November 25, 2011 - 1:06am

If you walk in downtown Juneau anytime of year you will see a myriad of faces, including a small population of homeless chronic inebriates. That sector of people, while relatively small, leaves many civic and medical organizations concerned about reaching them, the city wondering how to best handle the effects of that population trying to make due, and other citizens shying away.

Public opinion reflects the thought that the situation downtown has gotten worse — more aggressive even. Juneau Police Department Officer Thomas Penrose said that “more aggressive” is probably subjective, but he hadn’t heard via police data that any aggression is more or less worse.

 

Glory Hole begins Breathalyzer tests

There also has been some finger-pointing at the Glory Hole, something director Mariya Lovishchuk is prepared to tackle.

Part of the problem is due to policy changes at the soup kitchen and shelter.

Lovishchuk said a policy was instituted in 2009 when she became director because of the problems drunkenness in the facility caused for its staff and those it serves. Now, no one can receive services from the soup kitchen and shelter without a Breathalyzer test.

“Ever since then, the situation at the Glory Hole has been really good,” she said. “We’ve been able to help a lot more people. Staff turnover is down to virtually nothing.”

She said when she first came there were fights every night and there was a lot of blood and vomit in the bathroom on basically a daily basis. Lovishchuk said the reasons for the change included not only safety, but stability for the majority of Glory Hole’s clients. She said people who are homeless are trying to get back on their feet, and that’s rather difficult to do if they can’t stay in a safe, sober environment.

But, Lovishchuk said, they also realize it is the Glory Hole’s responsibility to help those they can no longer serve.

“By instituting a Breathalyzer policy we kicked out about 10-15 percent of our clients,” Lovishchuk said. “Now our clients are outside and suffering. Our mission is to provide compassion and care to those in need. The people we kicked out are most in need, medically and psychologically. The Glory Hole has a responsibility to figure out a community solution and improve the lives of those people in any way we can.”

Part of that solution may come in the form of a new outreach position. They are seeking funding from the Alaska Mental Health Trust and anticipate a response sometime next month. Lovishchuk said she feels positive about getting funding for the position based on initial feedback from the trust.

That person will start collecting an “inventory” of the chronically inebriated and homeless people downtown — basically working with the vulnerability index (see the related article on Juneau Homeless Coalition solutions for more info). They also will work with an array of community health organizations to connect the groups to better provide services. That person also will assist in tracking down total actual costs of the issue. The position will be supervised by the Glory Hole and will cost about $25,000 and is limited to six months. After six months, they will revaluate and see if the response is working and what still needs to be done.

“They think that if the examples of other communities are any indication, they will see that those folks are costing everybody an absurd amount of money,” Lovishchuk said. “I think once we figure out what the costs are it will be a lot easier for the community to do something.”

Some also say that the shelter is the source of the problem, and that if the facility were moved the issue would go away.

“People always say if you just move the Glory Hole out of town it will solve everybody’s problems,” Lovishchuk said. “I don’t think it matters one little bit where the Glory Hole is located. Building in Juneau is so, so expensive that moving the Glory Hole would not be economically feasible. It wouldn’t solve anything because people are drinking downtown because there is alcohol here, not because they’re getting a sack lunch at the Glory Hole. ... I would like to make it very clear. People don’t throw up and pee on people’s doorsteps because they get a sack lunch at the Glory Hole. They assault each other because they have mental health issues or because they are drunk. I don’t know where they get it but it’s not here.”

Lovishchuk said it’s a horrible feeling having to turn people away, especially in winter.

“It is a tremendous liability for us,” she said. “It breaks my heart to do it. Right now there is no other place in Juneau where those folks can go. Unfortunately it’s not here.”

 

JPD brings a new presence downtown

The city is responding both in terms of police service and taking a look at what it can do with ordinances.

The Juneau Police Department provided the Empire with regarding some incidents downtown from this summer — June 1 through Aug. 31 — for calls to former JPD Officer Tracy Murphy. He began an assignment last summer as JPD’s liaison to downtown to deal with issues related to chronic inebriation. He moved to the Lower 48 for family medical reasons and now Officer Thomas Penrose has taken up the beat.

It’s important to note the following data does not entirely reflect specifically on the homeless chronic inebriate population. Calls for Murphy this summer totaled 237 for downtown — 70 alone for liquor related reasons. Other calls this summer included five calls for service about panhandling, four for theft, 19 disturbances, two for vandalism, three each for harassment and trespassing and 33 welfare checks. Total downtown calls this summer for welfare checks — everything from calling in about concern for a friend not seen in a few days to someone passed out on the street — was 301.

Enforcement and ordinances are two things the City and Borough of Juneau is looking at, but the impact of increasing rules may not be very effective compared to the other initiatives. The JPD was recently awarded a COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. It will fund two positions which will serve downtown.

“It’s a huge learning curve,” said Penrose, who has served with the department since 2009. “It’s a completely different thing than I’ve done before. There is a lot of proactive stuff you can do. As far as my goals, I’m going to stay in the same footsteps of what Officer Murphy has done. ... The department really is thinks this is a pretty big deal having somebody down here. Downtown is a hotspot for crimes and calls for service. They feel its really important to have somebody down here.”

Penrose said the idea is to conduct what’s called “community oriented policing” where officers take a proactive approach to keeping downtown safe rather than reactive. That means walking the streets and having simple conversations with people downtown, responding to business concerns and having an officer presence.

“Most of them, the inebriates, most of them are not a problem,” he said. “My approach determines their response. I treat them with respect. Just because someone is down and out doesn’t mean they are less of a person.”

Penrose believes the solution is partly in the hands of the individual, but he also recognizes that someone has to lead them.

“Most people don’t have the desire to interact with these folks. And that’s too bad,” he said. “A lot of it is taking the time to say ‘I care’ in reality, how much of us care.”

 

Ordinances struggle to keep up with the problem

Aside from policing, the mayor has asked the Assembly’s Human Resources Committee to look at the problem.

“In these initial stages we’re sort of knocking around looking for solutions,” said Assembly member Ruth Danner, chairwoman of the committee. “We’ve had a lot of complaints of members from the downtown population in particular.”

Some of the laws cities like Juneau had in place struggle to meet constitutionality in enforcement — such as loitering and public drunkenness.

“(Arresting someone) would be pretty darn unconstitutional if all you were doing was standing on the sidewalk,” Danner said. “How fair is that? Is that what we really want? No. The kinds of laws we used to have used to be much stricter but were not uniformly executed, they were selectively enforced.”

Current laws say you can’t have an open container in public, you can’t urinate or defecate in public and you also can’t endanger others.

Danner said the laws used to control behaviors involving severe intoxication are citations, at best misdemeanors.

“You don’t get called before the judge and you don’t get thrown in jail for it,” she said. “It all has to do with relativity. How long are you going to get thrown in jail for drunk driving? Are you going to get thrown into jail longer for just standing drunk on the side of the street?”

Something the city could follow through with is either beefing up or increasing ordinances.

City Attorney John Hartle said he was asked to look into those options. His department will be researching what other communities do and seeing if there’s anything they can do. Hartle emphasized that ultimately policy decisions are at the sole discretion of the Assembly.

“If someone is convicted of being drunk in public, they’re not going to get more than a very few days in jail,” Hartle said. “Driving while intoxicated, conduct that has killed people in Juneau, innocent people. The court is only going to impose a mandatory minimum of three days in jail for driving while intoxicated. Walking while intoxicated is going to get less, and then you will have spent a lot of resources.”

Hartle said one part of his task is also to look into the effects of changing something like an open container violation from a citation to a misdemeanor.

“The problem with this and all of these, you’re looking a finite resource,” Hartle said. “Police time invested in enforcing an open container law will be taken away from enforcing other laws. When the Assembly is picking a policy, do we want to do less domestic violence enforcement or more public intoxication enforcement?”

Hartle said there are two other possibilities. One is upping the enforcement of those serving alcohol — cracking down on the serving of alcohol to intoxicated persons, which is illegal. That would be enforced by either JPD or the Alcohol Beverage Control Board.

“Because our current laws are basically toothless, we are putting more police officers out and frankly more firefighters out to help control public drunkenness and they don’t have sufficient tools to do anything more than … kind of chase them around like pigeons in the park,” Danner said.

The second, which Danner also is interested in learning more about, is “red-lining” driver’s licenses. The state already has the ability to put a red line through a driver’s license to indicate that bars and liquor stores cannot sell alcohol to a person, but that law is restricted to certain felonies. One idea could be to increase the kinds of convictions that would apply to, but the Assembly would have to get the state Legislature to change that.

“A judge could order one of these things and nobody could sell you alcohol,” Danner said. “They would endanger their liquor license.”

All of these policy decisions get a little trickier though, Hartle pointed out, because of state statute 47.37.010. It emphasizes that persons who are intoxicated or alcoholics should not be criminally prosecuted, but that treatment options be given so that “they can live normal lives.”

“That declares a state policy of treatment rather than prosecution for alcoholics and intoxicated persons,” Hartle said. “There are cases interpreting that too.”

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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