EUGENE, Ore. — Eugene police are fighting accusations of discrimination regarding their enforcement of the Downtown Exclusion Zone ordinance.
Local organizations call the ordinance a tool to weed the homeless out of downtown. Occupy Eugene, the Community Alliance for Lane County and the Civil Liberties Defense Center all say officers are targeting the homeless, citing them on minor offenses just to get them out of downtown.
During Wednesday’s work session, council members addressed those issues with Eugene police.
Since its adoption in 2008, several local groups have deemed the ordinance nothing more than a means of intimidation. Sixty-four percent of those issued citations since January reported no address.
“If you walked into a town with a 3-percent black population and found out that 64 percent of the tickets were given to blacks, it would be pretty easy to jump to the conclusion that there was some discrimination going on,” said Jean Stacey, former Occupy/police liaison.
Stacey claims that’s exactly what is going on here with the homeless population. It’s an accusation not taken lightly.
“Now I have to tell you, knowing a lot of the officers involved, I get offended when I hear that, and I can’t imagine how as professionals it makes you feel,” said City Councilor Mike Clark.
It’s also an issue that needed to be addressed.
“We’re all very sensitive to it. We recognize the severity of it. We recognize that the perception is out there,” said Eugene Police Lt. Sam Kamkar.
Eugene police say they continually emphasize the focus is not people, but behavior. Officers say while individuals may be cited on low-level crimes, there is often more than meets the eye.
“In reality, they know that this person is a heroin dealer. They know that this person was earlier selling drugs to minors,” Kamkar said.
In regards to the ordinance’s effectiveness, officers believe it’s working. Less than 20 percent of those with notices violate their orders.
At the very least, businesses and councilors believe, increased police presence puts the public at ease in a community place needing protection.
“Our downtown, we want it to feel like it belongs to everyone, which makes it a very unique place in our community and one that needs to be healthy,” said Mayor Kitty Piercy.
As of right now, the council has three options: Extend the Downtown Public Safety Zone again, modify the ordinance to eliminate the 90-day exclusion, or simply get rid of the ordinance altogether come November.