First, a familiar sound. A shopping cart rattling against the sidewalk. It's a late summer evening, and the neon lights of the old Ritz building at the corner of Third and F have just come on, superfluous for now as the sky is still pale blue and full of peach light.
Then, a second sound. A man shouting. Just as I look out the second story window of the Journal
's office, a uniformed figure dashes south down Third. The police officer grabs the back of the homeless man's shirt, yanks him away from his cart and slams him to the ground. As he handcuffs him he shouts something to the effect of "Don't you walk away from me!" The tone is unmistakable: He is angry.
The issue of homelessness remains a sore point with many Eurekans, especially business owners in the Old Town area. Last night's arrest, which took place at around 7 p.m., was initiated in response to a complaint from an employee at Many Hands Gallery, who said that a man pushing a shopping cart was shouting, waving his hands and disturbing the peace.
"It happens on a daily basis," says Many Hands Gallery owner Astra Burke, who says the individual in question is known to her, and that she suspects he has mental health issues. Burke says that she and her staff often call the Eureka Police Department to deal with homeless people who are aggressive. "I do hear that the transient population is an issue for tourists. Every single business owner can tell you it's bad for business."
Burke says that she has witnessed a variety of approaches by law enforcement to these situations, ranging from the gentle to the extreme. Last night's encounter seemed to skew toward the extreme. Was the use of force justified in this situation?
We spoke to both EPD Chief Andy Mills and Capt. Steve Watson. Neither had read the full reports of the officers on duty at the time we spoke to them, but Watson was able to confirm that the person contacted — Jeremy Edward Jenkins — matched the description of the man yelling and screaming in front of Many Hands.
"If you’re telling a person to stop and they continue to walk away from you, that’s called passive resistance," said Mills. "You’re certainly going to contact the person, need to contact and stop them lawfully and safely. You’re going to want to try and do it the lowest way possible first and go from there. Once you get past verbal commands, you’re going to want use your hands."
According to the department's guidelines on use of force, "Any peace officer may use reasonable force to effect an arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance." A full list of the factors used to determine reasonableness of force are included below.
Mills concurred that seeing this type of force might be "startling" for someone not familiar with law enforcement methods. The Eureka Police Department's blog has several entries on appropriate policing of the homeless population and use of force.
"The police are the ones called to remedy the problem using the least amount of force necessary," says one entry from July of this year. Another entry says department will act in a "thoughtful, consistent and compassionate manner," regarding the homeless.
Jenkins was booked on probation violations for resisting arrest and possession of stolen property. Watson said that it is not common for officers to arrest people strictly for stolen shopping carts, but that the moment Jenkins ignored the officer's requests to stop he was in violation of his probation.
After putting Jenkins into the cruiser, the officers went through the shopping cart, pulling out a sleeping bag, a paper bag and some other items and putting them into the trunk.
Neither Watson nor Mills were able to identify the officers immediately. Jenkins remained fairly quiet through the encounter, except after it seemed clear that he was on the way to jail.
"What's going to happen to you next?" the officer could be heard saying. "I guess you should talk to your lawyer."
Then the sound of swearing and shouting rose from the back of the squad car.
Burke describes the current situation as "impossible."
"It's been impossible for decades," she says. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The police are doing the same thing. The homeless are doing the same thing. We're all caught in one big loop."
As the Eureka City Council prepares to discuss a slew of ordinances regarding Eureka's homeless
(730 people strong, according to estimates), the question remains of how illegal camping and other violations are to be enforced. Mills has maintained that his force will exercise "discretion," working with marsh residents and others to "help them help themselves." But how that discretion is exercised may vary widely according to the officer.
After his arrest, Jenkins was booked and released at the jail at 7:45 p.m. As of 2 p.m. this afternoon the stolen shopping cart still sat on Third Street, across from the Journa
l's second story window.
From the EPD's Use of Force Policy:
When determining whether to apply force and evaluating whether an officer has used reasonable force, a number of factors should be taken into consideration, as time and circumstances permit. These factors include, but are not limited to:
a. Immediacy and severity of the threat to officers or others.
b. The conduct of the individual being confronted, as reasonably perceived by the officer at the time.
c. Officer/subject factors (age, size, relative strength, skill level, injuries sustained, level of exhaustion or fatigue, the number of officers available vs. subjects).
d. The effects of drugs or alcohol.
e. Subject's mental state or capacity.
f. Proximity of weapons or dangerous improvised devices.
g. The degree to which the subject has been effectively restrained and his/her ability to resist despite being restrained.
h. The availability of other options and their possible effectiveness.
i. Seriousness of the suspected offense or reason for contact with the individual.
j. Training and experience of the officer.
k. Potential for injury to officers, suspects and others.
l. Whether the person appears to be resisting, attempting to evade arrest by flight or is attacking the officer.
m. The risk and reasonably foreseeable consequences of escape.
n. The apparent need for immediate control of the subject or a prompt resolution of the situation.
o. Whether the conduct of the individual being confronted no longer reasonably appears to pose an imminent threat to the officer or others.
p. Prior contacts with the subject or awareness of any propensity for violence.
q. Any other exigent circumstances.