With St. Augustine city commissioners and city staff working to solve what has been described as a panhandling and vagrancy crisis in the downtown area, city Police Chief Barry Fox is finally getting something his department has been requesting for at least the last two years: more officers.
“We are reprioritizing within our existing budget to add two positions,” City Manager John Regan told The Record on Thursday. “That’s already done.”
The conversation followed Monday’s city commission meeting where commissioners asked Fox just how many officers he needed to increase his department’s visibility in the downtown area and create what some called a “chilling effect” on problems associated with the increased homeless presence.
“That’s a very difficult question because you are asking me at a time of crisis,” Fox said at one point in the back and forth.
For at least two years, Fox reminded them, he has been asking to add four positions to deal with increased traffic and the associated crashes as well as a growing and increasingly vibrant nightlife in the city and all of the law enforcement needs that accompany it.
“I think we can do four …” he told commissioners.
“But it doesn’t account for the fact that I needed four two to three years ago to bring up my patrol squads,” he added.
Pressed further, Fox said in response to a question from Mayor Nancy Shaver that he needed two officers just for the urban area that includes St. George Street and the Plaza de la Constitucion, where homeless are often concentrated.
“I need at least, probably at least, two more officers in the downtown area,” he said. “I need to expand in the downtown area.”
That’s a total of six officers.
In his office Thursday morning, Fox talked a little about the challenges his office faces, both with manpower and with the homeless situation downtown.
“I hate to keep saying homeless because you just can’t police your way out of this thing,” he said.
With courts saying that panhandling is a First Amendment protected activity, officers can no longer enforce the city’s panhandling ordinance (they can still enforce against “aggressive” panhandling). But what they can enforce are the laws against public intoxication, urination in public, fighting and other problems that seem to have cropped up with the influx of homeless in the downtown area.
Fox expressed hesistance on his part to exploit the current crisis and ask for more officers than he really needed. He also didn’t want to give the impression that his department, alone, with sufficient resources, could solve the problem.
With the two new officers coming on board though (it takes six months to get an officer trained), Fox said he thinks he can increase that desired presence and hopefully curb some of the behaviors business owners, residents and tourists have been complaining about.
“Can we manage it?” he said. “Yeah, I think we can have a small impact.”
What he gets beyond those two remains to be seen.
Fox said he still needs at least four new positions, total, to “plus up” patrol that can be as low as four officers and a supervisor on some nights.
If that’s all he gets, he said he might consider putting them all in a sort of “swing shift” that can work the downtown area on weekend nights and other times when they are needed — an approach he refers to as “data driven deployment” — as well as any other crisis that might come up, like the current homeless situation.
“I think I can deploy the four … I can keep them target specific, to address the issues,” he said.
That targeted approach could have an impact on many of the behaviors that often take place out of sight of a uniformed officer.
“I believe if I can increase the visual presence, some of the acts associated with homelessness will be reduced,” Fox said.
Regan agrees and said that is why the decision was made to add the two officers immediately (they will be putting the hiring of a new police accreditation manager on hold to help pay for the additions).
But, Regan pointed out, they are doing more than just adding those two. They are also redirecting the police community affairs officer to act as a liaison between the department and the homeless service providers, like downtown’s St. Francis House.
“That adds another significant layer of police presence,” Regan said.
What gets added beyond that — whether it be the two more officers that Fox has been asking for, or an additional four — he wouldn’t say.
Like Fox, Regan, who laid out his overall plan for addressing the community’s concerns at Monday’s commission meeting, said law enforcement is only one component to the overall solution.
Future additions, he said, likely won’t come until after the next budget process and a hard look at the city’s strategic plan.
“You can’t police your way out of the problem,” Regan said. “If you do just one thing you are not going to get the right outcome.”