Police rolling out ‘relentless’ effort to deal with unhoused criminals; shelter still lacking for many who want help

A new ‘focused deterrence strategy’ will not resemble a sweep, Police Chief Andy Mills said, but will show that ‘there is a consequence for your actions in Palm Springs.’
A sizable encampment near Walmart near the Palm Springs border with Cathedral City has been growing in recent weeks as police make efforts to combat homelessness elsewhere in the city.

As volunteers prepare to fan out across the city on a mission to count unhoused residents on Wednesday morning, Palm Springs police are preparing to start a related mission.

Palm Springs Police Chief Andy Mills announced last week on social media and in an op-ed that his officers will pivot in their efforts to address the homelessness crisis in the city, focusing intently on the unlawful behavior of some who live on the streets rather than their housing status.

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“(I) understand there are poor people who do not have the opportunity others have had, fell onto bad times, or made a series of life choices that resulted in them living on the street,” Mills said Monday. “I feel deeply for them and want them to thrive. This project is not for them.”

The project comes with an intimidating name – “Operation Relentless Sun” – touching off fears that police will be more combative than compassionate when dealing with some of the most vulnerable in our community. But Mills said the terminology is only meant to promote awareness of the mission.

“When I first read about this operation relentless sun, it was frightening,” said Arlene Rosenthal, head of Well in the Desert, which has provided meals and other care for the unhoused in the city for decades. “I grew up in a free country.”

Mills said the name is “partly internal and external marketing” and that it’s “easier to keep the effort in the forefront of one’s mind.”

“As relentless as the desert sun is in Palm Springs,” said Mills, “we will be just as consistent with our efforts.”

Starting next week, Mills said his officers will “apply a focused deterrence strategy for the criminal element living amongst the homeless.” That strategy will be deployed throughout the city and not focused on any one particular location. Instead, officers will target “the criminal who lives among the homeless and preys on society.”

What will the latest effort look like? 

“That means the top 30 most intractable criminals will receive relentless attention through offers of help and strict enforcement,” Mills wrote. “PSPD will meticulously enforce all laws to create leverage and compel acceptable behavior. I believe criminals can make a rational choice to conform to our standards.”

Rosenthal said she’s in favor of making criminals uncomfortable as long as it doesn’t lead to abuse.

“I agree with the chief that there are criminal elements that need to be deterred,” she said. “You can’t threaten people and things like that. But once you try to get legislation where you can legally lock me up against my will, what’s next?”

In “Operation Clean Streets,” which began last year, Palm Springs police work with outreach teams to both clean encampments and encourage unhoused residents to accept assistance.

A similar effort, dubbed “Operation Clean Streets,” was launched in 2022 but focused primarily on downtown. At the time, Mills said the effort resulted in 71 arrests and two dozen referrals to social services.

Most of the arrests were for outstanding warrants, probation violations, and drug possession. Many of the individuals arrested were soon back in the city, returning to newly established encampments such as the one near Walmart off Ramon Road.

The new operation will not be a “sweep” – a term Mills said is “broad and unrefined, therefore discriminatory.” Those have proven both controversial and unsuccessful in larger cities.

In Los Angeles County, for example, data shows that after encampments were cleared, 80% of people engaged by outreach workers returned to the streets. Roughly 63 people out of more than 30,000 actually found permanent housing.

That’s a frustrating figure for those on the front lines of the state’s homelessness crisis but believable for Mills.

“When I wrote government, institutions and families are failing, this is an example,” he said. “They say it takes about 17 contacts with a person before they are willing to listen about shelter. The group above would take half a million contacts.”

Still, Mills said, “What is the alternative? We cannot afford to do nothing.”

“The message is that there is a consequence for your actions in Palm Springs, even if the consequence is going to jail for a few hours,” the chief said. “We cannot and will not just sit on our hands and let disorder increase around us.”

Disorder was precisely what the community was witnessing in South Palm Springs in 2021 when frequent reports of open drug use, theft, and other unruly behaviors led to an urgent meeting between the police and business owners. At the time, some city residents living on downtown streets said they were there because of the availability of drugs and items to steal.

“I used to live with my grandmother in San Bernardino,” said Rocky, who was well-known to many officers. “(I) have more of a purpose here than when I had a home. I have more better days and more better nights out here on these streets. It’s home.”

Palm Springs police arrest an unhoused resident last year near the new Downtown Park. Such arrests often prove frustrating, as state laws prevent incarceration for more than a few hours.

Will Mills’ plan work? He’s hoping to learn through data. While Riverside County conducts its annual “point in time count” – tallying the number of people living on city streets on a single day – Mills said his officers would make counts a regular part of their duties.

“(A) one-day snapshot of the number of homeless people … seems inadequate,” Mills said. “How do we know the depth of the problem if we don’t know the scope of the problem?”

But even if his officers succeed in learning that depth and scope and can convince people to seek help or shelter, problems could arise that are out of their control.

Assistance Mills said he hopes will come from Riverside County – in the form of a pair of outreach employees – has not been secured. And much-needed shelter and services in the city, including an 85-bed homeless services center planned for northern Palm Springs, won’t likely be enough to meet the needs of hundreds of people believed to be living on city streets, under bridges, and even at the airport.

Outside the city, a county official said just 20 of the 340 beds available year-round in the Coachella Valley – at Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and Martha’s Village and Kitchen, both in Indio – were available as of Monday. Last month, a 15-bed emergency shelter was opened in the city but is only intended for use this winter.

“When they say they offer services, there are no services,” Rosenthal said. “People are on waitlists to get beds. There are no beds, nothing. …When CVRM fills up, Martha’s fills up, what then?”

Until elected leaders in Sacramento and elsewhere answer that question, Rosenthal and others say a more human approach is needed.

“Mistakes like [sweeps] keep happening and keep being repeated because bureaucrats don’t want to sit down and really take the issue apart microscopically with the people,” said Rosenthal. “We just need compassion. I just think the approach needs to be rethought and reevaluated before more money is wasted.”

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