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Police presence will increase downtown

Medford City Council voted Thursday to pay for a police officer devoted to downtown

Medford City Council moved Thursday night to increase police presence downtown after businesses pleaded for help with an alarming spike in criminal activity.

“I frequently find feces outside our building in the landscaping and near the building entry,” said Gene Abell with The Abell Architectural Group.

The council approved spending $33,320.16 for an officer to patrol downtown for 36 hours a week from May 1 through July 2. This is a pilot project that expands the scope of the existing police Livability Team, which has been clearing homeless camps off the Bear Creek Greenway.

The officer would mostly walk around downtown from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., which Medford police cite as the time when the most calls for service occur.

If the program is successful, Medford police indicated it could be expanded to three officers working different shifts downtown.

The Downtown Medford Association held a roundtable discussion March 15, and one of the requests from that meeting was for a dedicated police officer to patrol downtown.

Abell said he often finds homeless people sleeping in the entry to his building, and he has to wake them up and ask them to leave.

Glass doors have been broken, and some have illegally entered the building. Many times he has found people sleeping inside the building, and employees and clients have felt threatened by the situation, he said.

“This makes it dangerous for public traffic on street frontage sidewalks,” he said.

Julie Raefield, public information officer for Rogue Community College, said that over the past year her downtown school has had 50 incidents, including burglary, theft, hate crimes, trespassing and public indecency.

“The individual offenders who commit these offenses are not always harmless and are not always homeless, and some in fact are there for a lot of other reasons,” she said.

One man was arrested after he tried to seek shelter on the third floor of the downtown RCC building, and he had a lengthy record that included sexual abuse, assault, kidnapping, rape and strangulation, Raefield said.

“We support long-term solutions, and we support this pilot project,” she said.

The Downtown Medford Association urged the council to support the pilot project, noting that the organization has been working to bring more energy into downtown, including additional housing.

“We’re excited to hear about this pilot program for safety,” said Renatta Tellez, executive director of the association. “We need to get rid of that negative perception of Medford and downtown Medford.”

The council had six “yes” votes and one “no” vote, by Councilor Sarah Spansail. Councilor Clay Bearnson abstained.

The program will be paid out of funds received by the city from the federal American Rescue Plan.

The council heard arguments for and against the pilot program, which expands on the Livability Team model, in which officers patrol the Bear Creek Greenway and remove homeless camps.

Melissa Jones, who runs the Stabbin’ Wagon program that provides syringes, overdose protection and safe sex supplies, said she opposed the increase of the Livability Team, saying its actions to eradicate homeless camps along the greenway have just pushed the homeless into downtown.

“We’ve used this punitive model over and over, and it’s just not improving anything,” she said. “The Livability Team is a huge failure.”

Instead of the homeless population decreasing because of the team’s actions, it has increased, she said.

“There is nowhere for them to go, and downtown is one of the best places for them,” she said.

Many of the opponents of the pilot project said the increase in homeless people downtown is attributable to last year’s greenway tent ban.

Police have cited 17 people for illegal camping along the greenway over the past year, with most homeless people complying with the prohibited camping ban. Since the Livability Team started in September 2019, housing has been found for 1,451 people, according to Medford police Chief Justin Ivens.

Megan D’Angelo, who runs a beauty salon, said she has worked downtown for 18 years and has helped homeless people, but she said the pilot project is a necessary step to help local businesses.

“The downtown has never been as unsafe as it is now,” D’Angelo told the council. “One of my staff members was assaulted in the parking garage by a homeless person who beat on the windows of her car and chased her to the second story.”

Bearnson, who is also a downtown Medford business owner, said he supported the project and also supported the effort of police who handle tough situations, but he said he’s not supported other crackdowns on homeless camps because they just push the problem elsewhere.

Bearnson abstained from voting on the issue because he said it would appear to be self serving. He said he had some concerns about the program, but as a business owner he’s gotten tired of the issues that have confronted downtown, and he threw his support behind the efforts police have undertaken to deal with the issues.

“I don’t envy the pickle you’re in ... when people are defiant and have a sense of self entitlement,” Bearnson said.

Councilor Tim D’Alessandro said, “We have an obligation as council to ensure the safety of our downtown patrons.”

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.