Manteca Police are walking a fine line when it comes to what some contend is the city’s most pressing quality of life issue — the proliferation of homeless.
Officers, many who go out of their way to direct homeless to services beyond simply handing out department issued resource cards jammed with contact information for everything from shelter and food to securing ID documents needed to obtain financial help and employment, are criticized for not doing enough and are criticized for doing too much.
Adding to the mix is a pending federal lawsuit filed against the city by three homeless men that contend police enforcement of city ordinances violate their civil rights.
If that weren’t enough, last year officer Ben Cromwell was viciously attacked by a homeless individual after officers were dispatched to the Showtime Express Carwash about a complaint about people sleeping on the property. Body cam footage captured Cromwell ordering the man to wake up 13 times, to show his hands three times as well as identifying himself as a police officer multiple times. The homeless man ended up grabbing Cromwell in the groin and not letting ago until he was tased by another officer.
“There is a document that guides our actions,” Manteca Police Chief Nick Obligacion noted. “It’s called the United States Constitution.”
Obligacion said there is a difference between being homeless and an individual who may be homeless committing a crime.
“As I’ve said probably a hundred times or so, being homeless is not a crime,” the chief said.
He noted simply because the way someone is dressed is not a crime nor is that person walking through a neighborhood or a shopping center a crime.
Obligacion noted in the case of complaints about the homeless sleeping beneath covered walkways in places such as Spreckels Marketplace that’s anchored by Food 4 Less after most of the stores have closed, it involves private property that allows public access.
That means unless the specific property owner complains or there is a legal letter on file saying they do not allow sleeping on their property, the police are powerless under the law to do anything when they respond to complaints about homeless who at times have been known to sleep directly in front of the ATM at Chase Bank.
As for barbecuing on city sidewalks as Robert Schuknecht — one of three homeless men suing Manteca — does periodically near the entrance to the East Yosemite Avenue McDonald’s, there is nothing among Manteca’s municipal ordinances that currently prohibits it.
There is also a misconception that police aren’t responding to calls about suspicious people who are homeless or potential criminal complaints against them. Some have interpreted responses from dispatchers that advise an officer may not arrive in time to observe an alleged illegal behavior as a sign police are not enforcing the law.
Obligacion said that is not the case. While sometimes officers are dealing with other calls that are a higher priority, they do respond.
But they can’t simply cite or arrest someone — homeless or otherwise — on a complaint that they are allegedly drinking in public without proof. The circumstances may not legally justify asking to see what is in a brown bag, for example, after they approach a subject if the person doesn’t appear drunk unless they volunteer to let an officer see it.
As for citizens that want to file a citizen’s complaint, they essentially would have to see the individual purchase alcohol and watch them consume it on a public street or sidewalk and then be willing to testify in court.
When homeless individuals give cause to be stopped, officers will run warrant checks. In some cases the homeless — even if there isn’t a suspicious circumstance to justify a warrant check — will volunteer to allow officers to do that. It is how one homeless individual was arrested last week on a felony warrant out of Stanislaus County when officers encountered him behind PetSmart.
“We are enforcing the law where it is appropriate do so,” the chief emphasized.
He also noted in talking with other law enforcement agencies up and down the valley as well as in the Bay Area, that homeless issues are also on the rise elsewhere.
“It’s not just Manteca,” Obligacion said.