Publication Date: Wednesday May 21, 1997

Debate is latest in history of controversies about how police should regulate street people

Palo Alto officers say they won't hesitate to enforce the law, but they don't expect many violations

Walking the streets of downtown Palo Alto, Officer Derek Souza defies any negative stereotypes of officers being intimidating or unapproachable. At ease and confident, Souza instead epitomizes the public's perception of the ideal police officer--genuine, friendly and concerned.

During one of his daily walks through downtown, Souza stops to talk to a merchant having problems with people smoking marijuana behind her store and aggressive panhandling in the parking lot. Next is a group of locals, some of whom are drinking alcohol on some benches off University Avenue. Souza, who knows them all by name, warns them to get rid of the booze by the time he comes back.

"Ninety percent of our job is problem solving," Souza said. "We wear many hats--we're educators and counselors as well as law enforcers." Souza stops to give directions to Il Fornaio to an out-of-towner. "We're also verbal maps."

Souza, along with Officer Sandra Brown, is assigned to downtown Palo Alto, which runs roughly from Lytton to Forest avenues and Middlefield Road to Alma Street. Both officers patrol the area, usually by bike, on a daily basis. Though bicycling police have been in Palo Alto for years, having officers devoted solely to the downtown area began in April 1996, in response to merchants requesting more police presence.

Souza and Brown are also the officers who will handle most of the enforcement of Palo Alto's new sit-lie law. However, Souza said he does not anticipate issuing many citations.

Human obstruction on the sidewalks, the target of the sit-lie ordinance, "is an issue because people complain about it," Souza said. "The ordinance just gives us a tool to deal with these complaints. As long as they (those being complained about) comply," Souza said he foresees little reason to issue any fines.

In Souza's opinion, the issue is not about homelessness or panhandling. Rather, the ordinance merely concerns a particular area of Palo Alto that has heavy foot traffic, and if people have to walk into the street to get around others on the sidewalk, then that is unsafe. Souza also said there is much unused bench space in Palo Alto that people who need to sit can use.

"The ordinance really is a safety issue," agreed Lynne Johnson, assistant police chief in Palo Alto.

While police say the ordinance is directed at safety, others argue the sit-lie law represents another evolution in society's efforts to thwart begging and vagrancy. Such laws, in fact, date back hundreds of years. In Elizabethan times in the late 1500s, for example, English jugglers and magicians were forbidden from performing on the streets, said Palo Alto City Attorney Ariel Calone.

In modern times, however, it wasn't until the 1930s and 1940s that the U.S. Supreme Court began issuing rulings that defined many forms of solicitation as protected under the First Amendment.

In 1960, the California Supreme Court in Los Angeles declared unconstitutional a conviction for vagrancy based on the plaintiff's status as a common drunk. This ruling led to a change in state law involving so-called "status crimes," in which the law punished "social deviants" for their status rather than their behavior in a given incident, according to Calone.

Another important court decision came in 1991 when California's begging statute was struck down, said Laurel Weir, policy director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Other court rulings have allowed cities to outlaw begging in certain areas. In Palo Alto, for example, it remains illegal to panhandle in parking lots.

"It's clear that one has a constitutional right to beg," Calone said. "What cities have tried to do is get at the kind of begging that is threatening."

To Menlo Park Police Chief Bruce Cumming, the issues raised by the sit-lie ordinance are directed at people overstepping their bounds.

"Originally (about 15 years ago), the community and police were much more tolerant of the homeless," said Cumming, who worked as an officer and assistant police chief in Palo Alto for 15 years before being promoted to his current position nine years ago. "But some, and I say some, of the homeless population has gotten more aggressive, and there is now less tolerance."

Cumming said he believes panhandling is definitely a problem in Palo Alto, recalling a time about a year ago when he and his wife were walking down University Avenue and were approached by beggars four times in one block. "I think the city of Palo Alto is dealing with this problem in a fair and humane way," Cumming said.

Souza said he and Officer Brown know most of the homeless people and panhandlers on a personal basis and maintain good relationships based on mutual respect. "I have a good rapport with them," Souza said. So when problems do arise, rather than having to take authoritative action, Souza can generally solve problems through communication.

"A lot of people have problems accepting the homeless. They don't understand it," Souza said. "People need to realize that there are bad apples in every tree, and not judge the whole group based on those few."

Common complaints that sometimes concern this portion of the population in Palo Alto include aggressive panhandling and being drunk in public as well as problems with people sleeping in doorways and urinating in public. "Once someone complains, you're obligated to enforce the law," Souza said. "But 99 percent of the time the problem is alleviated right then."

--Vanessa Arrington