Homeless people say they face police harassment, special ordinance or no

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Steven Gannaway was cited for loitering in front of Greensboro Urban Ministry by Officer Samuel Alvarez. (photo by Jordan Green)

For three months, there has been no ordinance on the books in Greensboro regulating panhandling and other forms of solicitation. Under threat of lawsuit for violating the Constitutional rights of poor people asking for assistance, the city hired a private law firm and held a series of public forums to try to devise a new set of ordinances that addresses legitimate public safety concerns without singling out a particular population.

On Tuesday, city council is set to vote on three proposed ordinances that ban soliciting in parking garages and parking lots, prohibit harassment in public spaces and prevent individuals from impeding street and sidewalk access.

“Here Greensboro is facing an open threat of litigation, where potential plaintiffs have already retained counsel,” lawyers with the Parker Poe law firm wrote in a July 10 memo to city council. “However, there is promising potential of working with members of the ACLU in drafting a legally defensible ordinance. A proposed ordinance must carefully address the legitimate safety concerns borne out by the collected data on citizen-initiated and officer-initiated calls for police service regarding panhandling, while at the same time recognizing and protecting the constitutional rights of all citizens. That is a narrow path, and must be based on data specific to Greensboro and the problems experienced in this community.”

Council members received draft versions of the ordinances from City Attorney Tom Carruthers on July 13. Marcus Hyde of the Homeless Union of Greensboro has urged council to delay the vote until the public has an opportunity to review the proposed ordinances and give input.

At-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said she feels comfortable that the public has had adequate time to weigh in through the public input meetings and that council members will have enough time to fully study the proposed ordinance before Tuesday. She said she thinks the drafters met the challenge of coming up with an ordinance that addresses a legitimate public safety need while still upholding people’s Constitutional rights.

“For instance, having the ability to walk freely on the sidewalk without impeding your passage, I think that’s important,” Abuzuaiter said. “I think one of the biggest complaints I got from residents is people coming and tapping on their window while they’re stopped in traffic. It addresses that. I think blocking an entrance to a building that is served by a sidewalk is a problem, and it addresses that. Nowhere does it single out any certain group, which is one of the things that was said to be wrong in the previous ordinance.”

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said on July 20 that the language in the proposed ordinance could still change. She added that she didn’t know how she would vote, and conceded that Tuesday might be too soon to take action.

“We may table it until we get the final draft,” she said.

Meanwhile, some contend that with or without a new slate of ordinances, police enforcement actions against people who appear to be homeless often amounts to harassment — a form of punishment against people who exist in public space simply because they have nowhere else to be.

“This is not a city for homeless people,” said Gaither Freeman, who can often be found sitting on a bench in front of the Greensboro Cultural Center. “It’s gotten rougher and rougher. I’ve been homeless for seven or eight years. Everybody I know is getting citations all the time. It’s like a joke; ‘Did you get a citation last night?’”

Jeffrey Ray Phillips, one of Freeman’s friends, said he has avoided citations for loitering, but only because he avoids the police as much as possible. Recently, he said he was sleeping in a grassy spot off Battleground Avenue just outside the city limits, and a Greensboro police officer ordered him to leave.

“This whole town is about eateries and bars,” Phillips said. “They’re trying to expand. They don’t want anyone who doesn’t have money, money, money.”

One officer in particular has earned notoriety among people experiencing homelessness in Greensboro.

“People say, ‘Y’all be careful of Alvarez; he’ll ride up on you and want to know what you’re doing,” said Steven Gannaway, a 53-year-old High Point native who has been experiencing homelessness in Greensboro for about four months.

Gannaway received a citation for loitering from Officer Samuel A. Alvarez on May 24 at 11:41 a.m. The offense took place outside of Greensboro Urban Ministries, an agency on South Eugene Street where scenes of dozens of people waiting for services or visiting with friends is a daily occurrence. The charging document alleges that Gannaway “did unlawfully occupy the sidewalk of the city in such a manner as to obstruct or interfere with the free passage of 1002 S. Eugene St.”

Gannaway said he was leaving Urban Ministries and had stopped to talk to a friend who was drinking a beer at the time he received the citation for loitering. He learned later that there was a warrant out for his friend for a separate offense. When a police officer pulled up, Gannaway said he could hear people say in the distance: “Here comes Alvarez.”

Gannaway said he asked Alvarez why his friend was being arrested, and the officer ignored him.

“Then the officer proceeded to ask me why I was standing there,” Gannaway recalled. “He asked for my identification. He said, ‘I’m going to write you a ticket for loitering.’” Gannaway said he could understand if there had been 30 people on the sidewalk and someone was trying to push through a baby stroller, but the only people on the sidewalk were him, his friend and Officer Alvarez.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “I’m going to court for standing on a damn sidewalk. It’s crazy.”

Freeman said Alvarez and Officer Jose M. Chavez, who are assigned to the downtown bike patrol, are responsible for issuing more citations against people experiencing homelessness for minor offenses than anyone else on the force.

Alvarez and Chavez were both the subject of a complaint by a nursing assistant named Zared Jones, who accused them along with three other officers of racial profiling when he and his friends were visiting downtown on a Friday night in September 2016. Jones was charged with second degree trespass and being intoxicated and disruptive, and the warrant alleged that he “interfered with passage across a sidewalk.” Jones’ complaint alleged that Alvarez committed perjury and made an illegal arrest.

The department cleared the officers of wrongdoing, and the citizen complaint review committee upheld the department’s finding.

Alvarez was also subject to a complaint due to an altercation with Jose Charles, then 15, in the summer of 2016, which drew national media attention. Alvarez is accused of slamming Charles to the ground after questioning him about injuries from a fight during a Fourth of July celebration at Center City Park. In the Jose Charles case, the complaint-review committee disagreed with the police department’s determination clearing Alvarez and the other officers, but the city manager sustained the police’s finding.

“Chavez and Alvarez are the two most harassing officers,” Freeman said. “Most of the people stopped for stupid stuff, it’s Chavez or Alvarez. They recognize me. Trespassing, loitering. It’s foolish stuff, nothing real. When I get to court, [the charges] get thrown out.

“I tell the judge, I’m indigent,” Freeman added. “I work through a temporary service. Most of my money goes to my son. He’s 16.”

Court records show that Freeman was charged with second-degree trespassing by Officer Chavez for being on the premises at the Pour House bar on Sept. 22, 2017 after being asked to leave, and then charged again by Officer PD Thomas for the same offense at the same location on Oct. 16. Court records indicate that prosecutors dropped the charge for the Oct. 16 offense after Freeman pleaded guilty for the earlier offense.

Ronald Glenn Jr., the interim public information officer, said in response to a request to interview Alvarez and Chavez that the police department does not make officers available for comment if they are under the rank of sergeant.

“I don’t know that it’s really fair for me to speak on their behalf,” said Capt. John Thompson, who supervises Alvarez and Chavez as commander with responsibility for District 1. “There’s nothing in my experience to say they’re overly aggressive.”

Thompson said it’s possible that the two officers’ names come up more often than others because they’re part of a team of 18 officers who patrol downtown — a relatively small geography — and people encounter them with more frequency than they do other officers.

“If I saw a high volume of complaints I would want to look at that,” he added. “We have an early-intervention system for things like use of force, vehicle accidents and citizen complaints. If you’re an officer who’s backing into light poles a lot, we might say we’re gonna get you some extra training. I think for citizen complaints, three complaints in a 6-month period gets alerted. We have the ability to look at how many reports they’re filing, and how many citations and arrests they’re making. If any officer is getting a lot of complaints, it might be something as simple as the officer not taking the time to explain to the person why they’re making the citation.”

Under North Carolina law, complaints against individual officers are kept in their personnel file, which is not available for public review.

It’s difficult to gauge how often the Greensboro police are citing people experiencing homelessness for loitering, obstructing city street and sidewalk and other standing violations.

A public records request by Marcus Hyde of the Homeless Union of Greensboro for loitering, obstructing and similar violations since February 2017 yielded only 21 records. But the police department provided two records to Hyde that were not provided to Triad City Beat in response to a request for citations over a shorter period of roughly two months. The two citations were issued within the window of dates specified in the City Beat request.

“I don’t have a good answer for why Mr. Hyde got it, but you didn’t,” said Kurt Brenneman, the city’s public information request tracking administrator. “We said there were no citations for loitering. That was inaccurate…. I apologize.”

Polly Sizemore, the police attorney, said the department’s response to City Beat’s public records request is now complete with the addition of the two citations.

“It was I want to say a very innocent oversight,” Sizemore said. “Our crime-data person is embarrassed.”

Regardless of whether the city is being transparent, Hyde said rather than looking for a substitute for its unconstitutional panhandling ordinance, it should pass a resolution against arbitrary policing.

“The city council has the power to pass a resolution and direct the city manager to direct the police chief to implement a police protocol that bars the police from arresting people just for existing in public spaces,” Hyde said. “Regardless of what the city chooses to do with the ordinance, if they continue to prosecute homeless people for things like standing, like existing, we’ll fight that in court. We’ll also fight that at city council. The city needs to get control of its police force and direct them that ‘your job is not to go around and harass homeless people.’”

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