The Palm Springs Police Department arrested 12 people on May 31 after a law enforcement operation set out to “address crimes involving disorderly conduct, theft, vandalism, and open drug use in Downtown Palm Springs.”
Police called the move “Operation Clean Streets” and contacted more than 30 people, most of them unhoused. Law enforcement officers from the city were joined by representatives from the Eastern AB-109 Post-Release Accountability and Compliance Team (P.A.C.T.), the Riverside County Crisis Response Unit, and Coachella Valley Rescue Mission.
Eight of the people arrested had outstanding felony and misdemeanor warrants relating to trespassing, drug possession, brandishing a deadly weapon, domestic violence, possession of stolen property, and camping.
Others were arrested that day for possession of drug paraphernalia and controlled substances, urinating in public, possession of a switchblade, and giving a false name to a police officer.
“Four or five of the arrests came straight out of the new Downtown Park,” Palm Springs Police Department Sgt. Frank Guarino said Tuesday morning during a meeting with Downtown business leaders. “We’re working on several issues at the park.”
Eight of the 30 people contacted were offered resources such as substance abuse and mental health counseling, as well as help finding housing by the Riverside County Crisis Response Unit and the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission. Only two accepted help with housing.
“Not a lot of people accept help with housing,” Guarino explained.
Those arrested are allowed to bring some of their property with them, but many of their items go into safekeeping with the department for up to 90 days.
Police said they planned the operation because of a heatmap analysis of crime in the city showing much occurs along the main thoroughfares. The department is planning more operations in the future in three areas under command of three different lieutenants — North, Central, and South Palm Springs. Some will be undercover operations, a visible increase in police, or just resource-based operations.
PSPD’s approach is different from many cities that wholesale arrest unhoused people and throw their belongings away. The department worked hand-in-hand with county mental health professionals who were there to help connect people with resources and decrease the risk of violent interactions between law enforcement and people with mental health issues.
In a report from last year, The RAND Corporation — a think tank primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. military — highlighted a similar program in Indio that pairs officers with program therapists.
“We used to give people a single chance: ‘You don’t want help? You can leave or go to jail,’” said Indio officer Steve Oehring, who shares a squad car with the program therapist, Cynthia Ferreiro. “That really doesn’t take care of the problem long-term. The approach now is, ‘How can we help you? Where can we take you? What do you need?’”
But some advocates working to eradicate homelessness want cities and law enforcement to move away from tactics that could be seen as criminalizing being unsheltered. Arresting unhoused people for non-violent offenses like public urination, trespassing, and camping can make it harder for them to find housing because they now have a criminal record.
Who are our unhoused neighbors?
Riverside County’s most recent Homeless Point in Time Count data gives a snapshot of the unhoused population on February 23, 2002, the day the count was taken.
- This year’s count was 15% higher than the count in 2020.
- Palm Springs was second only to Riverside in the number of homeless people on the day of the count. Out of the 3,316 people counted, 222 were in Palm Springs, and 514 were in Riverside.
- The majority of unhoused people are transitional aged youth, seniors, and veterans.
- There was a 30% increase in the number of unhoused people who are veterans on the day of the count compared to the last count.
A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union details how unhoused people can feel dehumanized by the rhetoric surrounding them.
“They are condemned as a threat to public safety, and a form of blight that needs to be swept up, disappeared, and excluded from places housed people gather,” the report stated. “Officials rarely include the voices, perspectives, and interests of people who have been displaced in the public dialogue, or recognize housing-displaced people as the constituents, residents, and community members that they are.”