Undercover Panhandling Narcs on Mill Avenue

  Must not be any real criminals out there. Tempe is using undercover narc's to bust homeless people for panhandling on Mill Avenue


Advocates for homeless critical of Tempe crackdown

by Dianna M. Nez - Jul. 2, 2009 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

Advocates for the homeless are calling the Tempe Police Department's four-day crackdown on panhandling and other crimes in downtown Tempe heavy-handed, potentially undoing years of efforts to help the homeless in the area.

Uniformed and undercover police patrolled Mill Avenue during the "Downtown Enforcement Campaign" that yielded 30 arrests. They included four on charges of panhandling, 16 for public liquor-law violations, one for the sale of narcotics, a felony-burglary warrant and five for various city-code violations.

The Tempe Police Department is calling the June 25-29 operation a win for downtown merchants, who have complained about panhandlers disrupting their businesses. Downtown Tempe Community Inc., an organization that manages the downtown for area landowners, hopes the arrests lay to rest any worries about downtown Tempe being unsafe. But advocates for the homeless worry that police unfairly targeted a population in need of help, not arrest.

Dave Summers, pastor of Tempe's First United Methodist Church near downtown, said the operation could undo work that area churches and charities have done to ensure Tempe's homeless know they will be treated with respect and offered support.

That effort includes partnerships with businesses, non-profits and interfaith communities. It has resulted in services that offer the homeless regular showers, meals, a place to sleep and to connect them with counseling to help them get their lives back on track.

While the police operation may have targeted people committing crimes, homeless people who have been welcomed downtown for years are bound to be fearful, Summers said.

"We're always really saddened when homeless people are singled out for unwarranted attention that results in police action that potentially violates their civil rights or leaves them even more vulnerable because they're not getting the help they need," he said.

Summers said he wishes Tempe police would have spoken with organizations offering the homeless support before turning to a crime sweep.

"We've always had a good relationship with police," he said. "We know these (homeless) people. We could have helped make a difference . . . talked to them . . . instead of scaring them."

But Nancy Hormann, president of Downtown Tempe Community Inc., said that during the past few months, she has seen an influx of "aggressive" panhandlers who are not the same homeless people being helped by charities.

"We are not having a homeless-people-on-the-street problem, we are having problems with aggressive pan- handling," she said. "I can tell you these people wouldn't want help if you asked them."

Hormann said her organization has encouraged downtown businesses to contact police when they see a problem with panhandlers. In recent weeks, she said, police that regularly patrol downtown have helped decrease the number of panhandlers.

"The police response was great. They really reacted to our requests," she said.

Sgt. Steve Carbajal, a Tempe police spokesman, also emphasized police were not targeting the homeless.

"The target wasn't people's residential status. It was people who were choosing to disregard our laws and city codes," he said.

Still, Summers questioned the police "production."

"I think there are other ways to respond to the presence of homeless," he said. "Certainly, police response helps to reduce crime. But are aggressive arrests for what's mostly solicitation necessary as a first response? There are other ways to create a safe community."

Carbajal defended the undercover officers.

"We want to get that message out to act accordingly whether you see (police) or not, and in this case we were watching and people were not behaving, and those people were held accountable," he said.

Reach the reporter at dianna.nanez@arizonarepublic.com


Homeless In Arizona