Businesses affected by out-of-control transients & others, residents say
By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Residents who told the Martinez City Council how a partially-dressed woman smeared feces on vehicles and the window of a downtown bar said the incident is one of “a long line of things going on downtown.”
They’ve carrying on their complaints online, posting a clip of the woman soiling the bar window before walking off.
During the Sept. 15 council meeting, witnesses said the woman dug through garbage cans Sept. 13 and threw them, spit and defecated on the street, then wiped her waste on cars and motorcycles before turning her attention to the bar.
“This is like, my last straw. This is getting out of hand,” a frustrated speaker said.
Others told of seeing people sleeping in parks and urinating near storefronts, how some businesses are struggling because of these incidents, and that others have chosen to leave.
Police Chief Manjit Sappal said the unidentified woman involved in the Sept. 13 incident, who isn’t from Martinez, was taken into custody not long after the incident, which happened shortly after she had been released by Contra Costa County authorities who had detained her for a mental health evaluation.
What helped Sappal’s department was that someone from Whiskey Lane called police, reporting the woman about 7 p.m. the night of the incident, Sappal said.
“This whole issue is not lost on us,” the chief said, adding he has received reports of another woman urinating at a business place and a man rummaging through garbage during the recent downtown car show.
He said officers are speaking to transients and others who are in the downtown area, and working with Doug Stewart of Contra Costa Homeless Outreach, to find places for them. Together, they’ve found shelter for 14 people, and another nine were given transportation through buses or BART to their homes after they were released from Contra Costa County Jail.
“I told them this is a priority,” Sappal said.
But another 20 have refused services, and that’s when things become more challenging both to police as well as to the agencies standing by to help. When that happens, he said, “We have to be creative.”
Sappal told of a man who has been found in Martinez, but is from Oregon. The man couldn’t travel back to Oregon by train because he had no identification. Officers helped him get the paperwork he needed and he obtained a ticket. But when it came time to board, the man refused to enter the train. “He changed his mind. We can’t force them to leave,” Sappal said. “It didn’t work out well, and that’s part of the challenge.”
He said officers are informing transients and others that if they break the law or misbehave, such as urinating in public or causing problems for businesses, they will be arrested.
“Where it gets complicated is there is a right way to do this, and a wrong way,” he said. The wrong way is to act without discretion, he said, adding it’s better to look at helpful resources and to encourage business owners and others to sign trespassing papers.
Having those trespassing letters on file, Sappal said, is an important tool to handling some of the difficult people.
“It’s part of the process,” Sappal said. The letters are sent to the district attorney’s office in advance of a meeting with Martinez police about a specific individual.
Officers also must educate downtown employees and company owners about things they may be doing that aggravate the problem, he said.
For instance, some people are letting transients work in exchange for food, to keep them engaged, he said. That can cause other problems. “You’ve got to be consistent as a community,” he said.
Sappal said he will be meeting with Contra Costa County officials about using its Behavior Court as additional leverage to get people who are addicted or have other challenges to accept the help they need.
He’s also meeting with Central Contra Costa County forensic mental health officials. “We want to work with them,” he said.
For his department’s part, he said, “It’s got to be a full-on organization priority,” and just as he’s asking the community to be consistent, he said his officers must be consistent, too. They’re trying hard to provide help to those who will accept it, but they also must be strict with those who engage in criminal behavior, he said.
He’s already experimented with having one officer dedicated to the downtown business district, and half the feedback he received was positive. Based on those comments, he’s examining the police force to see which officer would be the best fit.
That officer, he said, “must communicate well,” so transients and others understand that “bad behavior will not be tolerated.”
Having one officer assigned to the downtown “goes a long way,” he said. The officer becomes a familiar face to business people, frequent visitors and to transients as well, and becomes a point of contact.
Sappal said he expects that officer to be chosen and on the beat in about a week.
The most important thing a Martinez resident can do is be alert and notify police of suspicious activity, he said.
Some may have seen the problems so long they view the transient problem as “part of the landscape.” That won’t help Sappal and others find a solution, he said.
“If someone is out there urinating, you have to call,” he said. Once information is gathered, Martinez Police can forward information to the district attorney’s office, and from there, the best solution can be formulated, he said.
“People are pretty frustrated, and I totally understand that,” he said.
Those seeing unacceptable behavior may call Martinez Police on its non-emergency line, (925) 372-3440, so that the 9-1-1 lines are left open for life-threatening emergencies.
“If people call us, we can track this. We’ll have a starting point. It won’t work well if people are upset but don’t call us,” he said. “It won’t get done tomorrow, but this is part of the overall strategy.”