In the months leading up to the eviction of more than 100 people from a tent city near downtown, Boise city leaders frequently cited crime as one of the main reasons the camp needed to be cleared. For example, on November 19 when residents of the alley known as Cooper Court were warned to leave or face arrest, mayor Dave Bieter’s spokesman Mike Journee said the city was concerned about increasing crime.
“. . . people coming in and taking advantage of people who are experiencing homelessness in the area,” Journee said. “We recently had someone there trying to help another person, get mugged .”
KBSX wanted to get a picture of what crime in Cooper Court was actually like. We made a public records request to the Boise Police Department before the alley was cleared on December 4 but did not get the requested numbers until after. The numbers show that officers were very busy in Cooper Court. However, Captain Ron Winegar, who oversees the bike patrol (which visited the alley daily) and the downtown Boise micro-district that includes Cooper Court, says it may not have been the busiest spot.
“I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t in the top three, as far as areas where officers are called to on a repeated basis,” Winegar says. “There are some locations that are frequent calls for service for us, but Cooper Court [was, before it was cleared] one of the highest in the city for us.”
Cooper Court by the Numbers
Between May 1 and December 2 of this year (tents first started appearing in significant numbers in June), Boise officers recorded 631 actions under more than 80 categories in Cooper Court and on the streets immediately surrounding it. These represent contacts with officers both initiated by police and by the public.
Most of these were benign interactions. The most commonly recorded was “community policing,” when an officer does something to strengthen relationships with community members. The second most common was “welfare check,” which is what it sounds like an officer visits someone to check on how he or she is doing.
Crimes and Possible Crimes
The most common thing police recorded in or near Cooper Court that might represent a crime was “liquor violations.” In September a man (who declined to give his name) sitting in front of a tent in the alley complained about this.
“Three, four times a day [the police] come rolling through here,” he said. “Sitting right in the door of my tent I’ve got two open container tickets. That is my house, that’s where I live, so technically I’m in my house. I’m over 21, why is it illegal for me to have a beer?”
There were also serious crimes, both against property and people. Officers recorded looking into 18 instances classified as battery. Those might or might not have resulted in arrests.
There were 21 recorded fights or “fight situations.” Winegar says these included breaking up fights in progress, interviewing people after fights or stopping arguments just before the officer believed punches would have been thrown.
Problem With Subject
One of the most common occurrences police recorded in or near Cooper Court was referred to as “problem with subject.” This is a broad term which might be translated loosely as someone making trouble. It could be a person creating a disturbance in a store and the managers calling police to complain, or someone shouting on the street in a way passers-by found intimidating. “Problem with subject” calls often don’t result in arrests or citations.
The fact that Cooper Court residents were frequently reported under the “Problem with subject” category should come as no surprise to anyone who spent time there. Shouting was a frequent soundtrack in the alley when it was full of tents. Sometimes the shouting was directed at someone, at other times it was directed at no one. Some service providers and volunteers who worked with alley residents estimated that nearly all of them had some form of mental illness, some quite serious. Many also had substance abuse problems that caused them to behave erratically.
Cooper Court by the Incomplete Numbers
Of course these numbers only represent crimes reported to police or instances officers witnessed on their frequent visits to Cooper Court.
“I firmly do believe that there was a lot more crime that happened, in other words the people who lived there were victims of crime much more often than we had it reported to us,” BPD Captain Ron Winegar says.
During the months when the alley was occupied, residents expressed a wide variety of opinions on Boise police. Some thought of them as friendly and respectful, even as allies. Others had evident hostility towards officers. But it is clear that many were reluctant to bring their problems to police.
The man who complained about being cited for drinking in his tent said alley residents policed themselves.
“We have a few people out here that kind of, amongst ourselves, try to keep s**t down to a minimum,” he said. “Cause ain’t none of us want to talk to the cops. We just want to live.”
One of his neighbors, a young man in a makeshift shelter who also did not want to give his name, said early on they had a problem with theft. He said alley residents banded together and forced known thieves to leave.
“We don’t want bad people around here,” he said. “The people that you see walking around right now, are decent people. We’re out helping each other, trying to get things done so that way we can, you know, get a place to live. And we’re saving up so we can get out of here.”
Are We Safer?
Even before so many of Boise’s unsheltered homeless were concentrated in one place, crime was a problem among them. People experiencing homelessness are much more likely to be victims of crime or commit crimes than the population as a whole. But, was there less crime committed by or against homeless people in Boise before the tent city in Cooper Court sprang up or was it just more spread out?
“That’s the $64,000 question I guess,” Ron Winegar says. “We don’t really know because we don’t have good numbers. That population in general is a vulnerable population. They often times are victimized or preyed upon and often times by other homeless people. And so I don’t really think we have an accurate picture of that.”
So it seems fair also to say that we don’t know if Boise’s homeless and non-homeless residents are safer now that Cooper Court has been cleared.
Cody Jorgensen says we can’t know. Jorgensen teaches criminal justice at Boise State University. He says there is a dearth of research on effective ways to police homeless populations. He says generally speaking, when criminals congregate with other criminals there is an increased probability of crime and victimization. But he says non-criminal homeless people in groups may form strong social bonds that could decrease the likelihood of crime among them.
Jorgensen thinks dispersed Cooper Court residents would likely form into a few smaller camps rather than be scattered throughout the city. He says clearing the alley could put Boise police at a disadvantage.
“The homeless population is one of the most difficult populations to track,” Jorgensen says. “We only know where a small number of homeless people are. If the police know where they are, obviously they can be monitored. I would tend to argue that it would be better to isolate the problem, just have one area where we know where they are, where they’re close to social services and they can be monitored.”
Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
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