Homeless outreach: Policing more politely

Officers Cindy Cohn, left, and Cory Tomps listen to an employee at the Homeward Bound shelter. Since December, information developed by the new Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, has contributed to arrests in two murder investigations, an attempted murder and a felony arson probe, according to the Grand Junction Police Department.

A member of the Grand Junction Police Department Homeless Outreach Team, officer Cindy Cohn, sits at a picnic table and speaks with a man in Whitman Park as one of her partners, Cory Tomps, talks with a group of homeless people behind her. Three members of the Police Department make up the 6-month-old team, modeled after a program created in Colorado Springs in 2009.

It was as if Elvis arrived at Hawthorne Park.

On a Friday, roughly a dozen homeless people were beating the afternoon heat by sitting at tables under the park’s main shelter. Officers Cindy Cohn and Cory Tomps, members of the Grand Junction Police Department Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, were busy in conversation as soon as they stepped out of their unmarked patrol car.

“My head’s been hurting all day,” a man said.

Cohn offered him bottled water, concerned about dehydration.

A woman, anxious about making an appointment at Mesa County Human Services, got a ride from the officers to her destination.

At Whitman Park, men at a bench rambled while sipping on an open bottle of beer as HOT officers walked through the park, engaging whomever they could in conversation.

“Want to smoke a joint?” a man asked another non-uniformed police representative.

The offer was declined.

“I’ve never seen them arrest anybody,” said David, refusing to provide his full name.

David said he camps overnight in his Toyota pickup parked in front of a friend’s east-valley home, drives to Grand Junction most days to eat lunch at Catholic Outreach’s Soup Kitchen, then hangs out with friends at Hawthorne Park.

“The normal PD cops can’t be bothered unless they’re called,” David said. “(HOT officers) seem to have a heart.”

Six months since the Grand Junction Police Department assigned three of its 100 officers to the homeless initiative, police and local homeless-services providers say the team has made progress.

“We’ve certainly seen successes as far as building relationships with the homeless community and service providers, getting people into treatment or into an apartment,” Tomps said.

Audra Stock, regional director of Colorado West Mental Health in Grand Junction, said the officers have been assigned to develop treatment plans and work with 40 individuals identified as having severe mental illness and considered to be at the highest risk among area homeless.

“It’s hard to imagine life without them (HOT),” Stock said.

‘Was that working for us?’

While lacking a cost-benefit analysis of the program, HOT is replete with stories:

Officers helped facilitate the placement of a man into a substance abuse treatment program in Arizona after a local nonprofit footed the bill for a bus ticket.

A local homeless man of more than 10 years, who suffered a pair of strokes within months last year, recently left Homeward Bound’s North Avenue shelter and was placed in an assisted-living facility, thanks largely to the time and attention from HOT officers.

“Through (HOT) partnerships in the community, they were able to do within days what adult protection services and I couldn’t,” said Mollie Woodard, operations coordinator for Homeward Bound.

This, just over a year after relations between police and the homeless community were mired in mistrust after criminal allegations against a few officers.

In June 2010, three Grand Junction police officers were fired after an investigation confirmed they destroyed a series of tents at a local encampment. The same investigation brought forward claims that officers had improperly used pepper spray on property frequented by area homeless. Two officers resigned, and another two were reprimanded.

Distrust in certain circles still runs high, Woodard said.

“Each passing month I’m seeing people softening,” she said. “The mountain they had to climb was tall.”

HOT, modeled after a program launched in 2009 by the Colorado Springs Police Department, was pushed by Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper after his appointment to the job in February 2010. Camper defends the initiative, which prioritizes building relationships and assistance, against critics who suggest the department went soft.

While contacting 522 homeless people from January to June, three HOT officers made three felony arrests and arrested another four on misdemeanor or petty crimes, according to a department report.

“Was writing tickets for petty offenses and having them not show up to court, then going to jail and getting out ... our officers out on the same people dozens of times ... how was that working for us?” Camper asked. “Arguably, the problem was getting worse.”

“Classic enforcement is a feel-good answer for everything, and while that’s our job, there are some issues where that’s just not good enough,” he added. “We’ve got to develop relations with people we’re dealing with to develop long-term solutions.”

With treatment and self-sufficiency come savings, proponents argue.

Trend at shelter

In Colorado Springs, authorities estimated El Paso County at one point was spending roughly $55,000 per year per homeless person for police, fire and costs associated with jail, Tomps said. Eighteen months into the Colorado Springs initiative,  estimates were reduced to $18,000 per year, per person, Tomps said.

“We want to have that same effect by helping people get the services they need,” he said.

So, is it working?

Gi Moon, executive director of Homeward Bound, said the program’s full effect can’t be measured after six months, but she points to a trend in this year’s data. While the number of homeless clients seeking shelter has remained constant, 911 phone calls by staff members have decreased roughly 40 percent over the first half of 2011, when measured against the same period in recent years.

“I have nothing to prove it’s related to HOT, but certainly we’re not feeling like that’s our only option (calling 911),” Moon said. “With these officers, you’re able to work on an issue long before it turns into a 911 issue.”

When those 911 calls come from inside the homeless community, officials say they’re better equipped to work those cases.

Since December, information developed by HOT officers contributed to arrests in two murder investigations, an attempted murder and a felony arson probe, according to the Police Department.

“When you develop those relationships, you solve major crimes,” Camper said.

While the Police Department does not purchase individual bus tickets, HOT officers direct people to local service providers who can. It happens only in cases when someone has a job waiting for them, an appointment with a treatment provider or family ready to receive that person, according to the department.

Road to nowhere

“We don’t randomly send people out of town because invariably they come back or cause a problem in another jurisdiction,” Camper said.

Camper said he’s aware of two or three instances when homeless people arrived via bus in Grand Junction, sent here with no plan after a law enforcement agency paid for a bus ticket. The most recent, earlier this year, involved a passenger who reportedly caused a disturbance at the downtown Greyhound bus depot after arriving from Green River, courtesy of the Utah Highway Patrol.

“I spoke with the leadership of the Utah Highway Patrol, they looked into that instance and put the word out to their folks that wasn’t to be done,” Camper said.

“One of the components of the Colorado Springs model, once their initial relationships were established, was to take a comprehensive look at all of the various ordinances in place to deal with things like public drunkenness, illegal camping, etc.,” Camper said. “We intend to do the same here.”

The analysis may also include consideration of ordinances proven to be “helpful” in other jurisdictions, Camper said, declining to cite specifics.

Among the department’s vocal critics, Jacob Richards of Housing First! No More Deaths!, is quick to praise the department’s work with HOT. Richards, however, said his group would oppose new ordinances aimed at homeless people.

“It (HOT) was a good first step in repairing the relationship between the Police Department and homeless community, but it’s not like everything’s great,” Richards said.


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