Almost two weeks later, 19-year-old John Johnson was standing at the same downtown intersection, singing, when the cuffs were slapped on. His backpack and skateboard were on the wrong part of the sidewalk, cops say.
“Could not charge sidewalk-use violation, as that charge is not a crime,” said an officer’s notes on the arrest, obtained by the Mercury. Instead, as they did for Cripps and 16 other transients last year, Portland police officers leveraged an oft-criticized Oregon statute to bring a criminal charge. Johnson is now a wanted man within the bounds of Multnomah County.
Welcome to the Chronic Offender Pilot Project. This is not how it was supposed to work.
The project, COPP for short, is a little-known enforcement tool used to target offenders with stepped-up consequences for crimes that, authorities say, have made the city feel dirty and unsafe: urinating in public, drinking in public, and littering.
But late last month—in the face of questions from the Mercury about how the policy had been applied—the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office acknowledged the effort had gone off the rails.
It turns out cops weren’t really targeting those “quality of life” offenses. Instead, at a time when police leadership and the mayor’s office were talking about how much they’d like to revive Portland’s controversial sit-lie law, the cops last year essentially made COPP sit-lie’s secret sibling.
“We were looking at behavior that was active quality-of-life behavior,” said Chuck Sparks, a chief deputy in the district attorney’s office. “Not someone sleeping in a sleeping bag.”
According to documents released by the DA’s office, 17 of 19 arrests and prosecutions under COPP have been based on violations of the city’s sidewalk-use ordinance. People were targeted for sleeping under bridges and in alcoves, for not leashing their dogs, and for having items in so-called “pedestrian-use zones.”
According to a review of the arrests, the district attorney’s office believes many offenders are so-called “travelers,” who descend on the city every summer. But prosecutors concede there’s no scientific way to make that distinction.
Additionally, 43 percent of the warnings that police handed out under COPP had to do with sidewalk offenses, according to a list provided by the prosecutor’s office. The sidewalk-use ordinance was enacted after sit-lie was ruled unconstitutional in 2009. Rather than prohibiting sitting and lying on sidewalks in general, it bans certain activities from 7 am to 9 pm.
But it was never supposed to help arrest people under COPP.
The problem, Sparks says, is that a memo issued to police early on in the pilot project contained “violating the sidewalk-use prohibitions” as behavior to be targeted. Sparks says the verbiage was inserted into the memo by a deputy district attorney under his supervision.
“I think it was just an oversight,” Sparks says. “I should have caught it.”
Sparks was alerted about the oversight in October—around the time COPP was extended beyond the initial four-month tryout. He says he gave word then that cops should stop using COPP to enforce the sidewalk law, but couldn’t remember to whom. (Multiple inquiries at the Portland Police Bureau on this point had not garnered an answer as of press time.)
And the DA’s office didn’t look, at that time, to see how many people had been arrested and subjected to stiffened penalties as a result of the mix-up (all 17 of the sidewalk-related arrests had been made by October 22). That didn’t happen until the Mercury filed a public records request last month.
COPP—as it’s supposed to work—uses the state’s “interfering with a peace officer” law to leverage increased penalties on crimes often associated with homelessness.
Police give out warnings for targeted misdeeds and add offenders’ names to a lengthy list. Then, if the same person is caught peeing, drinking, or littering again, police can arrest them for not following a lawful order.
Prosecutors say the project is aimed at increasing accountability. Transients arrested for these minor offenses rarely show up for court, and there’s no mechanism to make them. But under COPP, offenders are arrested, then released a short time later. A bench warrant is issued if they skip court hearings.
The goal is to either convince scofflaws to accept treatment or force them to move along to a more-convenient city [“The Secret Weapon,” News, Feb 26].
Many of the people cited under the policy have several past cases in Multnomah County, and all of those who’ve been arrested are apparently homeless.
Cripps was first cited under COPP in late June, just weeks after the project was enacted. According to police records, she was seated near SW 3rd and Ash with her black dog. The dog had a leash on, but Cripps “did not have the dog in hand,” reads a police report by Officer John Oliphant. “She was standing moving belongings around. I rode up to her, and when I mentioned the dog she immediately stepped on the leash… I issued her an improper sidewalk-use warning.”
Roughly two weeks later, officers found Cripps “blocking the sidewalk” and put her in handcuffs for “interfering.” Court records show she failed to appear at multiple court hearings, but was arrested on a warrant and pleaded guilty to the class A misdemeanor. When she didn’t complete required community service, she was sentenced to five days in jail.
Johnson, the singer whose skateboard was allegedly in the middle of the sidewalk, had been warned before. He didn’t show up for his court date and is wanted on a warrant.
And then there are thornier cases, like that of 20-year-old Angel Lopez.
According to documents provided by the DA’s office, Lopez was first issued a warning for violating the sidewalk ordinance in August. So when police found him sleeping under the Morrison Bridge after 7 am on October 1, they initiated an arrest. In the scuffle that ensued, Lopez pushed an officer who was trying to take a friend’s dog and slapped another officer on the arm, according to documents from the DA’s office.
When all was said and done, he faced seven criminal charges. The police bureau even sent out an alert about the incident. “Officers were conducting routine ‘wake-up’ calls and asking folks to pick up their property,” the release said, referring to several people who “became combative.” It makes no mention of COPP, or that the altercation might not have occurred if Lopez wasn’t being arrested for violating the sidewalk ordinance.
“I think the program has value. I think it can work,” says Jim Hayden, a senior deputy district attorney. “I’m just frustrated we got off track.”
The DA’s office says it will ensure open COPP cases based on sidewalk offenses are remedied. But criminal convictions will stand.
Even without the missteps, COPP has proved controversial. Public defenders and civil liberties lawyers say the policy raises questions about the use of the “interfering with a peace officer” statute.
And Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she was “horrified and very disturbed” to learn of the policy. Fritz, who’s worked extensively on homelessness issues in recent months, said Mayor Charlie Hales, the commissioner in charge of the police bureau, should have told her about the project.
“The communication obviously is lacking, and how to correct that more than a year into this council is an ongoing challenge,” Fritz said.
There are indications Hales’ office knew COPP was being used in exactly the way prosecutors say it shouldn’t be. In an interview on February 26, spokesman Dana Haynes told the Mercury he wasn’t familiar with the name Chronic Offender Pilot Project, but did know about a new enforcement policy.
“Folks who had been saying: ‘I’m going to stay on the sidewalk forever and ever and there’s nothing you could do about it,’ we could go to them and say, ‘You can’t live here,'” Haynes said. “‘Do you really think coming to Portland every summer is so much fun when you have a bench warrant?'”
But pressed—after the DA’s office admitted to COPP’s enforcement errors—about how much the mayor’s office knew of the project’s intent, Haynes said he was “fairly unfamiliar with what it’s doing and where it’s going.”
“Right now I don’t really know that much,” he said in a voicemail message left on March 3.