By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez Police Chief Manjit Sappal is proposing changes to the Martinez Municipal Code that could give his officers clarification about what homeless people and others can and cannot do within city limits.
He presented his suggestions to the Martinez Public Safety Subcommittee Monday night to find out whether the panel wants to hear his staff report and proposed code amendments.
Not only was he encouraged to proceed, the panel may convene a special meeting to consider the changes before they are presented to the Martinez City Council.
Residents have been more vocal in the past few weeks in criticizing the behavior of some transients in the downtown commercial district, including using public places as restrooms, camping out in front of coffee shops, and such aggressive actions as blocking traffic and yelling obscenities.
While the city codes allow police to charge someone who appears to be behaving in a disorderly manner, Martinez law doesn’t specifically address public nudity. Sappal also wants the code to prohibit public urination and defecation.
Sappal said one specific complaint led to his examination of laws against camping in parks, recreation areas, roadways, parking lots and several other camping areas.
However, the way the law is written is so specific that when Martinez Police was called to a downtown coffee shop to remove a sleeping camper, officers realized that the code could be interpreted in a way that didn’t cover the situation to which they were responding.
“From time to time, we need to reassess,” Sappal said, explaining that gray areas in the codes can be puzzling to residents and police alike.
Store owners who have faced belligerent people who aren’t conducting business in the stores should have a streamlined way to report the problem.
“We want the merchants on board,” he said.
Sappal is suggesting the code prohibit camping in public places from 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. The law should allow police to address public camping no matter what type of equipment the campers are using.
At the same time, he said, residents who want to camp in their own yards should be allowed to do so, and the law should be clear on that as well.
Sappal said he would be revising the codes limiting sleeping or dozing in cars, too.
The police chief said he also would like to see the code prevent or discourage the carrying of some weapons, such as BB guns, pellet guns and certain types of knives.
There are other types of defense weapons, such as tasers, other types of knives and pepper spray, that aren’t illegal, but Sappal said those using them could face civil liability.
He agreed with one resident, Julian Frazer, who suggested that knives carried for specific uses, such as while fishing or riding horses, shouldn’t be prohibited if they’re being used correctly.
Councilmember AnaMarie Avila Farias said that the subcommittee might convene a special meeting to read Sappal’s staff reports and drafts of the code changes so the panel can make recommendations to the council when it takes up the proposed amendments.
Sappal said the downtown area has between 20 and 30 transients who have become aggressive or are causing the bulk of complaints to his department. But Martinez’s homeless population is far greater, he said, “upwards of 200.”
Being homeless isn’t illegal, he said – one of many times since he became chief that he has made that statement. His officers are targeting specific behaviors he said will not be tolerated, but they are also trying to get homeless people the type of help they need, whether it is shelter, mental health treatment, transportation to their home cities or some other services.
However, some people prefer to be homeless, he said. Those that cause chronic problems may become subjects of “geographic probation” – banned from specific areas by decision of a judge, he said.
Arrests and charges can serve to remove a misbehaving person from the environment that has sparked that behavior, Sappal said. It also can be a way of assuring the subject gets help.
But the homeless people aren’t the only ones who are causing problems in the downtown area, a resident, Karen Liepman, said.
She pointed out that people smoke in areas where it’s prohibited, and they take their dogs to the farmers market, even though that’s not allowed.
“But when something goes wrong, ‘It’s the homeless,’” she said. “Regular people are drunk and disorderly … we need to be kind.”
Avila Farias said Martinez has had homeless people for years, but the numbers were smaller, and other people knew them. But things have changed as residents and business owners have undergone economic loss. The city’s central business district is closed by 5 p.m., the cost of housing has risen dramatically and resources are stretched, she said. “It’s a perfect storm.”
In addition, other outside agencies have been contributors. Contra Costa County has released people from its authority at 8 p.m., too late for them to catch the last bus out of the area. Those people have nowhere to go until the next day. Homeless people are discharged from the county hospital. “They’re not supposed to,” Avila Farias said. Discussions with county officials has changed both situations.
She suggested the city has been lax on intoxication and belligerent behavior: “It’s gotten out of control.”
Deb Gomes, a hairdresser and musician, described her own bouts of homelessness, living out of a car, and times when the only people who helped her were those with no shelter of their own.
She said she has worked hard to develop her mobile hairdressing business, and donates her skills periodically at Loaves & Fishes, the organization that provides free lunches each weekday. Three of those whose hair she has cut have gone on to find jobs, she said.
“The homeless get a bad rap,” she said. “You have no idea what they went through.”
But another woman told of taking her grandchildren to the Martinez marina, where they came under verbal assault by five intoxicated people who appeared to be transients.
The panel heard Sappal’s reports on other topics, too.
He said his department is looking to get officers trained to use the force’s police motorcycles, which can be deployed to address traffic matters.
Avila Farias asked Sappal to examine the way John Swett Elementary School handles its traffic flow and how parents park in areas that are designed to keep moving. Those parked cars are causing a backup, she said.
Sappal also informed the panel about an upcoming citizens police academy, a series of nine three-hour classes starting Jan. 11 that would give participants a “behind the scenes” look at the Martinez Police Department.
Those attending will get to learn about dispatching, handling police dogs, the crime laboratory, defense tactics, detective investigations, and Specialized Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and hostage negotiations, among other topics, he said. Multiple members of the department would be guiding the classes on different days.
It’s also a way to generate public interest in the department’s volunteer program, which helps police efforts by handling such tasks as looking for graffiti, assembling records and providing other assistance, he said.
Sappal said his department is also developing a citywide email alert system for those interested in getting notifications. Those interested in being included on the list may email Administrative Assistant Renee Jacobs at firstname.lastname@example.org.