Elgin may ban repeat 'nuisance' offenders from downtown

The Elgin City Council will consider tougher regulations to combat public intoxication, urination and other nuisance behaviors by banning repeat offenders from public parks and the downtown area.

The police department is proposing ordinance changes that include banning for 90 days initially, and later for 180 days, individuals found guilty of three nuisances in a one-year period. Violating the ban would trigger a criminal trespass charge, punishable by up to six months in jail.

Nuisance behaviors include public intoxication, possession of open containers of alcohol, drug-related offenses, public indecency such as nudity, urination and defecation, aggressive panhandling, prostitution, disorderly conduct, sitting or lying on sidewalks, littering and vandalism.

The problems are caused by a group of repeat offenders - five to 15 individuals at any given point in time - who seem undeterred by police citations, Deputy Chief Bill Wolf said. Police have issued 323 citations for public intoxication and 657 citations for possession of open alcohol containers since 2013.

"A lot of the people that are causing these problems happen to be homeless, but the ordinance is not targeting the homeless," Wolf said. "In fact, one of our top four offenders is not homeless."

Deb Loss, case manager for the Elgin homeless shelter PADS, said she supports the proposed changes. "The more we enable (the homeless) and allow them to sleep by the river and in the doorways of businesses, the more it's going to happen."

The new regulations would apply to public parks and the downtown area bounded by Kimball Street to the north, Dundee Avenue and Villa Street to the east, National Street to the south and State Street to the west. Exemptions would be made for those who live or work downtown, or have appointments with doctors, attorneys, social workers, and the like.

Loss said she's been doing outreach among the homeless to inform people that stricter rules likely are coming.

"We are trying to make them aware of the situation and being very proactive in getting them off the street before it becomes an issue," she said. "I think for the businesses and our downtown neighbors, it's something that is necessary to make them feel a little bit safer."

Jack Forbes, owner of Elgin Key & Lock Company in downtown, agreed, saying people repeatedly have urinated and defecated near his business.

Still, he cautioned against having too-broad rules. "I wouldn't consider just sitting on the sidewalk as falling into that category, but I would if you are lying on the sidewalk."

The proposed regulations are based on ordinances from across the country, including the drug-free zone law in Portland, the civil exclusion ordinance in Bend, and the downtown public safety zone ordinance in Eugene, all cities in Oregon, police said.

The Eugene ordinance was in effect from 2008 to 2013, largely supported by business owners but opposed by social service providers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, Eugene police analyst Carter Hawley said.

"It became clear we weren't necessarily going to arrest our way out of this problem, in part because the jail didn't have enough capacity," Hawley said.

Since then, Eugene police have implemented new initiatives, including a community outreach response team of officers who walk chronic offenders to social service appointments, and "community court" of sorts that directly connects offenders with social service providers.

Arabica Cafe co-owner Diane Stanton said she hasn't had any nuisance issues but empathizes with business owners who have. However, banning people from downtown won't solve the underlying problem, she said.

"It will just move the problem somewhere else," she said.

Elgin police will continue to try to work with those in need, Wolf said.

"We realize that to a certain extent this will displace people from the downtown," he said. "One of the things we do a good job of is doing our best to work with the homeless people in Elgin, and referring them to JoAnn Stingley, our police social worker, and the other agencies."

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