Arresting Homeless To Be Low Priority in Berkeley

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Berkeley police will make enforcement of a state law criminalizing homelessness a low priority, the City Council decided Tuesday.

Council chambers were crowded, stuffy and filled to the brim for the second week in a row as the council took action on the controversial resolution, which was not addressed at the last meeting as was anticipated.

The highly publicized agenda item essentially instructs the Berkeley Police Department to stop enforcing a state law that prohibits people from sleeping in public places.

Hundreds of homeless individuals in the city have lobbied the city for weeks to throw out the law.

"(The law) is like arresting us for drinking water or for breathing," said Kalif Lahutt, a homeless Berkeley man. "This is a lesson in civics for us."

Proposed by Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the resolution also supports "the compassionate treatment of homeless people" and instructs the city manager to find funding suggestions for detoxification programs, daytime respite care, storage lockers and other homeless services.

Designating the law as a "low-priority" sends the message to police to stop enforcement, said Berkeley police Deputy Chief Roy Meisner. He said, however, that the department already takes this approach by sending out mobile crisis teams and resorting to arrest only as a last resort.

The council, split along "progressive" and "moderate" faction lines, voted 5-3 to pass the resolution, with Councilmember Polly Armstrong abstaining.

Armstrong said she was offended by the measure's wording, which implies the city is not already compassionate with respect to homeless outreach.

"I agree with Polly Armstrong's assessment that it was very offensive," Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean said. "It sounds as if we don't care."

Dean denounced the item as "political grandstanding in the worst way." She said the city is exemplary in its approach to homeless services and criticized Worthington for being dishonest with people by instilling fear in them.

"By and large, the philosophy and commitment by the police department in this town is commendable," said Fred Medrano, director of the city's health and human services department.

Homeless people in the audience laughed sarcastically at any praise for the police department and asked for martinis and cell phones when they learned the city spends $6.5 million a year on homeless services.

The council also disagreed over an amendment Worthington added, which says police should make no arrests without two prior warnings.

Councilmember Dona Spring said the warnings were appropriate because "they give people time to get up and get moving."

Councilmember Linda Maio, who voted in favor of the resolution, said the warnings would help when "people lose their cool."

Ashby Danser, known by his friends as "Dancer," compared being woken up by police to being abducted by a UFO.

"As human beings, nobody should have to go through that," he said.

Dean, however, said the amendment requiring the warnings made things even more unclear for the officers.

"What it's going to result in is uneven enforcement," Dean said. "Cops will hang back because they don't want to get caught in the crossfire-nobody knows what the rules are."

After passing the resolution, the council unanimously passed a second resolution to reaffirm the city staff's commitment to good public service.

Ken Moshesh, a homeless activist who constitutionally challenged the state law, said he was pleased so many people came to participate in city government.

"Berkeley is probably the best city that deals with homelessness," he said.

The council had planned to take action on the proposal last Tuesday, but at 11:00 p.m. voted to postpone discussion until the following meeting. Hundreds turned out for the decision last week, although they left disappointed after waiting several hours for a vote on the proposal.

Several rallies took place before the council's vote on the item, including one just before the Tuesday meeting.


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