Homelessness is an extremely complex social issue that impacts the quality of life in our community. There are no easy solutions. The Westminster Police Department (WPD) recognizes there is a fine line between homelessness as a social issue versus a criminal issue. The WPD recognizes the intrinsic rights of the homeless to be treated with respect, dignity, and they deserve the same protections as all members of our community. The WPD also recognizes the rights of persons living and visiting our community to be free from crime or harassment and the rights of business owners to conduct their business free from disruption.
There are many causal factors leading to homelessness including substance abuse, mental illness, domestic issues and finances. There are times when the disorder associated with homelessness is criminal in nature, but difficult to enforce. To provide better service to this population, the Westminster Police Department has created three separate partnerships:
(1) The Homeless Outreach and Positive Engagement team (HOPE) consists of a police officer and an outreach worker from the Health Care Agency. This program is specifically designed to provide compassionate alternatives to addressing homelessness and continue on-going outreach and engagement efforts outside of regular “calls for service.”
(2) The Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) consists of police officers and licensed mental health clinicians from the Health Care Agency. Together, they respond on-scene to situations involving people who are experiencing a mental health related crisis. The goal is to provide the most clinically appropriate resolution to prevent unnecessary incarceration or hospitalization.
The WPD also has a representative attend monthly meetings of the Orange County Community Officers Working Group (OCCO). This work group consists of Orange County designated Community Outreach Officers. Once a month this group comes together for a meeting or training session. The meeting deals with current homeless related issues, which share common issues from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Working collaboratively enables the neighboring agencies to establish a “best practice” so the Orange County homeless population has access to shared resources.
While being homeless is not a crime, many kinds of public conduct are illegal and should be reported. These can include:
- Public intoxication
- Aggressive panhandling
- Urinating and defecating
- Consumption of alcoholic beverages in certain public places
- Unlawful camping or sleeping in certain areas
- Obstructing sidewalks
- Living in a vehicle parked on a public street
- Disturbance of the peace by loud and unreasonable noises
- Threatening behavior
Because many of the crimes involving homeless persons are misdemeanors, a police officer can only arrest a person if the offense was committed in his/her presence. However, a person who witnesses the offense can make a citizen’s arrest by doing the following:
- Call the WPD and provide details of the offense. Call 911 if it is an emergency, i.e., if the crime is in progress or about to happen and involves serious personal injury, property damage, or property loss. Otherwise call the non-emergency number at (714) 548-3212.
- When an officer arrives to take physical custody of the suspect, state that the offense was committed in your presence and you would like to make a private persons arrest. You must also be willing to appear and testify in court.
You do not have to physically take the person into custody. For your safety, such action is discouraged by the Department.
The following information will help mitigate any potential issues with homeless persons.
- If you would like to report an ongoing issue with homelessness, you can call Commander Cord Vandergrift at (714) 548-3732 for all businesses and residences east of Beach Boulevard or Commander Darin Upstill at (714) 548-3716 for all businesses and residences west of Beach Boulevard.
- Avoid verbal or physical confrontations.
- Offering money of food often encourages panhandling. If you are inclined to help the homeless, a better method is to contribute to local charities, missions, food banks, or social service organizations that assist the needy.
- Do not permit anyone to camp or loiter on your property.
- Do not allow anyone to store shopping carts, bedding, or other personal belongings on your property.
- Restrict access to sidewalk overhangs, alcoves, or other areas protected from inclement weather.
- Keep trash dumpsters locked when not being filled or emptied.
- Secure outside storage sheds or containers.
- Lock or turn off exterior power outlets.
- Lock gates after hours.
- Install motion-activated exterior lighting after hours.
- Trim landscaping to eliminate hiding places. Canopies of mature trees should be maintained at least 8 feet above the ground. Bushes should be trimmed to less than 3 feet except where privacy or environmental noise mitigation is a primary concern, or where higher plants would not block any views, lighting, or camera coverage, or provide hiding places.
- Keep property free of trash, litter, junk, etc.
- Have plants at sidewalk level. If raised planter boxes are used, the sides should be at least 4 feet high or their tops should be uncomfortable for seating, e.g., by making them very narrow, allowing plants to grow over them, etc.
- Establish, post, and enforce rules of conduct for public use of private property. Include signs of nighttime curfews and prohibitions of loitering, illegal lodging, drinking alcoholic beverages, drug activities, etc. The signs should state that persons engaged in prohibited conduct will be asked to leave the property and that failure to cease the conduct or leave the property will result in a call to the Westminster Police Department.
- Install surveillance cameras to cover public areas. Have security personnel monitor these cameras and ask persons engaged in prohibited conduct to leave the property. Security personnel should also patrol the property at random times.
- If security personnel are not available, or if it is not practical to monitor the cameras all the time, install video analytics or intelligent video software in your camera system. It will alert you when something suspicious occurs. Lights could be turned on at night when motion is detected, and audio announcements could warn trespassers that the police would be called if they do not leave the property immediately.