We harbor reservations about the Albany City Council's decision to establish a new Enhanced Law Enforcement Area, but we're prepared to wait six months to see how it works.
In that regard, we were pleased that Councilor Bessie Johnson asked for the six-month update at the same meeting at which the council approved the Enhanced Law Enforcement Area. (Johnson was part of the 5-1 majority that approved the establishment of the area; only Councilor Dick Olsen dissented, and we'll get to his reasons in a bit.)
It's not clear yet what specific information will be available in the six-month report, but we'd be interested in particular in one bit of data: The addresses of the people who run afoul of the three-strikes clause in the enforcement area. That could help answer the question of whether police enforcement in the area has disproportionately involved homeless people.
The new Enhanced Law Enforcement Area makes up a series of neighborhoods, mostly downtown, that get the most calls for police help. The zone takes up neighborhoods north of Pacific Boulevard at Pine Street continuing to the Willamette River, west to Elm Street continuing south to 11th Avenue, east to Pacific Boulevard and down Pacific to Pine Street, along with the Albany Train Station and the Pacific Boulevard overpass. (The online version of this editorial includes a map that shows the area's boundaries.)
The Albany Police Department asked the council to create the enforcement zone because it found that 19 percent of the crimes committed in Albany occur within its boundaries. The area itself, about a square mile, makes up about 5 percent of the city as a whole.
If someone is convicted of three offenses within the area in a six-month period — misdemeanors, felonies or city code violations such as illegal camping or public use or consumption of alcohol or drugs — a judge could find that person guilty of "persistent violation."
If that happens, the judge could order the defendant excluded from the Enhanced Law Enforcement Area for a period ranging from three months to a year. The order can be amended if the person needs to travel within the zone for school, work or to access public services such as St. Mary's Soup Kitchen.
Proponents of the idea told councilors that it was needed to help keep their neighborhoods and businesses safe. People who live in the area cited problems with theft, trespassers, noise, prowlers and discarded refuse, ranging from used needles to human waste: A woman who lives along the Dave Clark Path said she frequently finds people sleeping on her property and leaving trash behind. "This isn't a matter of making people who are homeless uncomfortable," she said. "This is a matter of making people follow the same laws."
And there's merit to all those points. People have the right to feel safe in their neighborhoods.
But we also think there may be merit to the arguments from people who aren't convinced that the Enhanced Law Enforcement Area is a good idea. That group, by the way, includes Councilor Olsen, the only one of the city councilors who lives in the affected area — and the only dissenting vote.
"I sympathize with the neighbors," he said. "But I can't vote for this, and I don't think it would come anywhere close to solving the problem."
There's an important point to make here: In no way do we want to suggest that Albany police officers have been unfairly targeting homeless people; in fact, these officers often work hard to connect the homeless with the services they need (to the extent that those services are available).
With that said, one worry about the Enhanced Law Enforcement Zone is that it would just sweep issues occurring in the zone into other areas of the city. Let's hope the six-month update can help to answer that question and offers other insights as well into the effectiveness of this experiment. (mm)