Talk of Homeless Encampment Sweeps at Police Commission Meeting

Police commissioners and officers responded to criticism about recent homeless camp sweeps as coronavirus keeps getting worse

Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner weighed whether his department should continue crackdowns on Eugene homeless encampments at the July 9 Eugene Police Commission meeting, while a police lieutenant defended the department against citizen complaints that cops ignore frat boy behavior that’s as bad as anything homeless campers do.

The commission discussion, held on Zoom, centered on the Eugene Police Department’s involvement in recent homeless camp sweeps, particularly at Washington Jefferson Park on July 1, when a large campsite was forced to disperse. Some members of the commission and the police said that they were interested in looking at alternatives to the current police relationship with Eugene’s unhoused population.

After a few people phoned in for public comment with their concerns about these crackdowns on homeless encampments — especially about how coronavirus cases are continuing to rise in Lane County and some people have nowhere to go where they can keep safe — the commission heard from Skinner. 

“Our goal would be that the police department wouldn’t be involved in camping enforcement at all,” Skinner said. He said that he hopes to form other groups to help mitigate illegal camping and deal with the problem at its root, though he didn’t specify what that would look like. 

Police Lt. Doug Mozan spoke about his experience doing these homeless camp sweeps, echoing Skinner’s comments.

“We’re not looking for campers to displace,” Mozan said. “That’s not what EPD is about. We don’t have time for that.” 

Mozan said that when Eugene’s Parks and Open Space Division needs to enforce camping bans or the police receive a complaint about someone illegally camping, the police department is the only group with the authority and jurisdiction to enforce these bans. 

“You’re going to see continued enforcement of park rules where there is a problem, I’ll tell you that,” Mozan said. He said that encampments on 1st Avenue and Jefferson Street were on his radar. “It’s probably the least glamorous thing the police do.”

Silver Mogart, a citizen on the commission, asked Mozan why, if the police don’t want to continue forcing unhoused people to disperse from their encampments, do they continue to do it?

“If this isn’t what we want to be doing, why don’t we just stop?” Mogart asked. He said that the people who complain about homelessness and call the police on unhoused people are the ones who have their voices heard, where homeless people themselves have been silenced. 

When Mozan described some of the scenes that he has witnessed at recent homeless encampments around town, Mogart laughed. “I live in the university area, and that sounds pretty much exactly like you’d see at a frat kegger,” he said, implying that the EPD leaves rowdy college kids alone and picks on homeless people.

“I see what you’re saying, but a bunch of red cups looks different than broken bicycles and poop on people’s doorsteps,” Mozan said, comparing a college party to some of what he’s seen at these encampments, which he said could be like the “wild, wild West.”

Councilor Alan Zelenka, a City Council liaison to the Police Commission, said that he frequently hears people asking the council to “solve the homelessness problem,” which is something that cannot be done without first solving the systemic issues that created a homelessness problem, like access to mental health resources and affordable housing. 

The police commission, which acts as an advising body to the City Council, chief of police and city manager on policing issues, didn’t come to a conclusion on a temporary way forward for unhoused people during the pandemic. 

The July 9 meeting was the end of service for four commissioners: Bill Whalen, Will Davie, Edward Goehring and Terry Robertson. Applications to replace these members closed July 10. 

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