Longview police have issued no citations under the city’s two-week-old homeless-related ordinances, saying officers are taking an education-first, citation-later approach to enforcing the new laws.
“It’s a work in progress,” city spokesman Shawn Hara said in describing how police, city attorneys and other authorities are implementing the changes.
And as part of an effort to better serve the city’s homeless population, Longview police officers are taking part in training courses focused on dealing with residents who might have mental illness or other related issues.
The ordinance amendments passed Sept. 28 by the City Council establish solicitation-free zones meant to reduce panhandling in certain areas and also outlaw solicitation by coercion everywhere in the city. The changes also outlaw sitting, standing, lounging or sleeping on any public property or road that impedes the intended recreational or functional use of those properties for other people.
The local laws set up an alternative sentencing component for defendants convicted of the Class C misdemeanor — allowing indigent people to perform community service or seek counseling from local nonprofit agencies in lieu of fines that could reach $500.
“It’s going to be focused initially on education and not trying to be punitive, but trying to say here’s where we’re going,” Hara said. “Now that’s not to say that there won’t be any citations written, but the focus will be in the beginning on education.”
No date has been set for when citations will be issued under the new ordinances, Hara added.
Longview modeled its anti-solicitation amendments after similar laws in Dallas that were passed in February 2016. Within a month, more than 200 citations were issued in downtown Dallas on Class C misdemeanors, according to the Dallas Morning News. Plainclothes and uniformed officers were stationed downtown to catch aggressive panhandlers from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day, though many of the panhandlers were back on the street within days after they were arrested, police told the newspaper.
Longview authorities say that while Dallas was a model for its approach, they are committed to finding alternative ways to resolve the underlying issues that caused the person to solicit rather than assessing fines or making an arrest, which isn’t a required punishment for Class C misdemeanors.
“The ultimate goal,” said Longview police spokesman Sgt. Shane McCarter said, “is to figure out some way to assist the homeless population that is out there, and that’s what the mayor is wanting to do is to facilitate them and to get them — if they’re wanting that help — into a system that they can benefit from. … Lots of times that deals with mental illness, and recognition of that on the forefront for a lot of our officers is kind of the first step.”
Hara said the ordinances have no impact on local ministries’ ability to feed and serve residents or homeless people in public settings such as Jesus Burger, in which On Mission Ministries staff members serve lunches every Saturday to people on East Marshall Avenue.
On Mission Ministries Transportation Minister Casey Dent said some of the people who are served by Jesus Burger have been in prostitution or sleep overnight outdoors. At 10 a.m. every Saturday, the ministry picks up people by bus for prayer, praise, worship and meals.
“It is in the red-light district of town,” Dent said. “That’s where Jesus walked, so that’s where we are.”
He said he understands the city is laying the groundwork for authorities to be able to approach each case differently and specifically to each person’s needs or financial means. He said the process criminalizes a defendant at a certain point, but Jesus Burger volunteers and patrons “drop our issues at the cross, and we’re going to continue to do that every day.
“We welcome all of the homeless, of course, and our heart is big,” Dent said of his ministry. “We work with our officers there, pretty much because where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, and that right there is the good feel of Jesus Burger.”
The city has fielded calls from several nonprofit agencies that have asked questions about the ordinance changes and how they might be impacted, Hara said.
“That will be part of the educational push when we get things going is visiting some of the organizations in particular,” he said.
Hara, Police Chief Mike Bishop and Assistant City Attorney Terry Jackson each spent time on a task force created by Mayor Andy Mack in March to address issues of homelessness in Longview. On Wednesday afternoon, the trio met to continue designing the city’s path toward educating the public about the ordinances before issuing tickets.
“That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be something that could result in a citation, but right now the focus on just education,” Hara said.
McCarter said the mental health training that Longview officers are undergoing in partnership with Community HealthCore is crucial to the new ordinances and other measures implemented by the city to deal with the issue of homelessness.
This past week, dozens of officers took part in a 40-hour training course. Much of the training included scenarios of intense, life-threatening encounters with a mentally ill person.
“We recognize that a lot of the homeless population … is typically out there because of some type of a mental illness,” McCarter said. “So, when we train our officers to be able to recognize the fact that they have a mental illness and ways to work with the other agencies that are out there — Community HealthCore, the missions, those type of places — that allows us to get them in a placement or a facility if they have a mental illness to get them off the street.”
This past week’s training wasn’t precipitated by the recent homeless-related ordinances, but McCarter said the training is “really crucial” to what is taking place in the community.
“Mental health is something that over the last 20 years has really started showing its face more and more, partly because I think the state funds are not there like they were back in the 1980s,” he said, “so funds to actually house the mentally ill person and make sure they stay on their meds is not there like it was.”
As police encounter more mentally ill people on the streets, McCarter said officers’ goal remains the safety of the person — even when a subject has a gun, knife or other weapon drawn.
“Unfortunately, we will wait until that last moment or that last second to have to act,” he said, “and that last second very likely causes us injury or death.”