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An Extended Conversation With EPD Chief Skinner And Eugene Mayor Vinis

Brian Bull

Recently, Eugene City Mayor Lucy Vinis and EPD Chief Chris Skinner came to KLCC to discuss a number of topics with reporter Brian Bull, including the formation of Wake Up Eugene, a group of more than a hundred business owners frustrated with vandalism, litter, and harassment committed by transients across the downtown. The conversation detailed work being done on tackling homelessness in Lane County, the distinction between "homelessness" and "lawlessness", and how progress is faring on some long-term strategies, including the TAC report.

Below is a transcript of the interview between KLCC reporter Brian Bull, Mayor Vinis, and Chief Skinner, that took place on November 22, 2019.

Bull:  The group, Eugene Wake Up, says it wants more immediate action taken on the homeless situation.  Is the city able to do anything in the short term when it comes to controlling transient traffic around some of those downtown businesses?

Chief Skinner :   Well…(laughs)…we’ve certainly been engaged in this conversation for awhile now, feels like we just – as I walked into the studio -  we talked about it, being just yesterday I was a finalist for this job, and it feels like…probably Day Two we started having this conversation about how we can be more visible and offer some more accountability and enforcement options for some criminal behavior.  And I think that’s the important piece of what we need to identify, is the type of behavior that we’re trying to address.  You want your police department to be addressing criminal behavior, first and foremost.  And an awful lot of what we see is both criminal and in some cases, just really bad social behavior that’s not criminal.  

And so the question becomes how do we legislate or enforce that, and that becomes a little bit of a delicate answer in the way of how we do that.  What I can tell you though is that the city’s been really, really committed – especially in the downtown core – to try and not only identify having this downtown team which has been in place for a while – but if you think about the city as a whole, 50 square miles, 170,000 people…the downtown core is more densely policed than any other part of our city based on the fact that we have a downtown police station and that we have dedicated police officers downtown.  And soon that coverage is going to go to 2:00am in the morning with downtown officers.  So we’re really hoping to have a little bit better impact downtown, to have officers being able to intervene when we see criminal behavior.

And one of the frustrating things, I’ve been working, and been at the Eugene Wake Up meetings, and offering them suggestions…and just the parameters around what they’re trying to accomplish…one of the difficulties that we see, when you think about criminal procedure, is an awful lot of behavior that they want us to do something about, or people in general want us to do something about, police officers actually have to be able to develop probable cause, and in some cases, witness the behavior.  And that becomes really, really challenging when you’re spread really, really, thin, and then you get calls after the fact.  And maybe the people that were engaged in that behavior aren’t even there by the time we get there.  All of those things kinda contribute to a real difficult situation.

Credit Caitlin Estes / City of Eugene
City of Eugene
Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis and EPD Chief Chris Skinner talk with KLCC reporter Brian Bull.

Mayor Vinis:  We have some long-term strategies that we’re rolling out, right. The Council has approved a very significant investment in public safety through the payroll tax, and a very significant public investment through the implementation of the Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC) report, on how we  better serve people who are homeless.  

But I want to say two things about this first: what we constantly need to remember is that not all homeless are criminals, and not all criminals are homeless.  There is an overlap and we recognize that.  But also this is our investment, both in the community safety and the TAC report is, to better position us to provide housing and services to the people who want and need housing services, and to enable the police then to do the work that they’re equipped to do which is to address criminal activity.  So we’re increasingly moving in that direction, where we’re better positioned to really target our efforts.  

And so it’s important for the public to see that.  I would say that the challenge for us, is we have these two major initiatives going forward, it’ll be a couple years before the public sees all of that play out.  And so the challenge for us now, is to get from where we are today with these frustrated businesses, to where we know where we’ll be, in a couple years. 

Some of the things this city has been very effective at championing these sort of pilot projects, these grass roots – we’ve been able to experiment, and one of the things that we had for many years, for several decades, is a car camping program which is supervised by St. Vincent DePaul.  And so one of the options that some businesses use in other parts of town and that the school district has used, is to actually have a sanctioned car camping spot on your property.  So there’s eyes on the ground all day long.  They can be able to contact the police when needed, but it can provide -in some cases- some extra support for those businesses.  So there are some pieces like that, that I think can come into play.

Bull:   And Chief Skinner, you mentioned that they may extend patrols until 2am.  Are you talking about weekends and weekdays?

Chief Skinner:  We’re working on the deployment strategy now, again we’ve got limited resources downtown.  And so you think about a robust response, it takes a lot of staff to do a 7-day a week, 24-hour day deployment.  So what we generally try to do is let data lead us where data is gonna take us.  And we want to be mindful, about time and day a week resources, and where we see the highest call volume.  And so we’ll do the statistical analysis and identify where our highest call volume is, probably not going to be a shock if we do that and find out that weekend nights is our highest call volume.  Not because simply the behavior we’re seeing downtown with those that are unsheltered, but it’s a destination for a lot of people on the weekends.  

And understand that Eugene is a destination city, an awful lot of people we deal with bad behavior in the downtown core, aren’t even from Eugene.  They travel down here from outside Eugene, maybe it’s a game weekend and they decide to come into the downtown core, and then we have some contact with them.  So we serve 170,000 sleeping at night, but on any given day and a weekend when we have a game, that balloons it well over 200, 000, so we have to serve everyone equally.

Bull: The payroll tax that was enacted by the city council in June is going to go into effect next summer, generating funds that’ll increase the size of Eugene Police Department by more than three dozen officers .  Is this a factor that can help control the issue with some of the homeless people that are vandalizing and loitering in the area?

Chief Skinner: Well, let me make it real clear, the payroll tax is designed to create a higher level of livability and to drive crime down in Eugene, regardless of who is perpetuating those crimes.  So this payroll tax has never been a direct nexus between the issues of what we’ve seen around homelessness and the need to expand the Eugene Police Department.  

Having said that, there will be, what I think people in Eugene will see is they’ll see a more robust service from the Eugene Police Department.  To mean that when you call non-emergency 911 for an issue, whether it’s an issue with somebody that’s homeless or not, that we’re able to get to you more quickly and service those calls.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Homeless panhandlers near downtown Eugene.

To be able to say it’s going to affect the loitering…it’s not illegal to loiter downtown, it’s not illegal to exist downtown, it’s illegal to be downtown and engage in criminal behavior.  We’ll certainly address those issues as they arise.  But I think it’s not fair to say that adding more police mean more people are not going to be loitering downtown.  

And that’s not going to be where our focus is going to be, our focus is going to be on criminal behavior, and doing great investigations, and creating more discretionary time for officers to do proactive policing and be back in the neighborhoods where they should be.

Bull: At the same time, I can’t imagine it couldn’t help but alleviate some of the issues people are experiencing, I’d think that an increased police presence could maybe deter some people who’d be on the lawless side…

Chief Skinner: Certainly. If your intent is not pure, and you’re in the downtown for the express purpose to engage in criminal activity, and you happen to see more police presence than you’re used to seeing, then that could deter crime.  And that’s part of the strategy, we want to deter crime.  We don’t want to wait for crime to happen and then respond, we want to be mindful of deterring crime.  And if our mere presence deters and prevents crime, then I think that’s a win for the entire city.

Bull:  Mayor, do you have anything to add?

Mayor Vinis:  Anecdotally, I was just meeting a business owner last night downtown, and I asked him how the climate was feeling for him and his businesses, and he said, “You know, I hate to say it, as simple as that, there’s more police downtown and it’s just a better climate.”  So…

Bull: Makes them feel safer, I’m sure.

Mayor VInis:  Makes them feel safer. 

Chief Skinner:  And that’s a solid strategy in some areas, is just to be seen and visible.  And the key for us is how do we free officers up with discretionary time, to just engage in dialogue with people, and be downtown, be in neighborhoods, stop in and stop in and say “Hi!” to business owners.  And that’s the direction we’re going.  

And the Mayor put it very, very well, this isn’t something we’re going to be able to do overnight.  I gotta hire as many as 40 new police officers, and that takes me 2-3 years to be able to get them hired and trained,  and ramped up and really into our community.

Bull: Just quickly getting back to the short term aspect of this, I know some business owners are eager to resolve this as soon as possible…there’s been talk of forming foot patrols or getting some enhanced neighborhood watch, monitors, maybe addressing City Council on certain ordinances, maybe explore fences, gates, things like that.  Are you aware of those suggestions right now?

Mayor Vinis: Yeah, I actually met with a couple of the folks in (Eugene Wake Up) last weekend, and we talked through some ideas around…we created a new ordinance around the trespassing to expand the property owners’ rights over those grassy strips, some discussion over if they’re not grassy?  Could we adjust those?  There could be some discussion about increased property management, I think the idea of some additional watch kind of programs could be valuable, it gives a single point of contact for the police.  I think it means there’s a network, that they’re working together. 

I do think it would be interesting to think about whether they want to host some car campers, a network of car campers would be more stable, not just one at a time.  I think there are some avenues I was impressed with, they’re very solutions oriented, prepared to make proposals to council, prepared to step up.  And you know, I’m happy to entertain what other thoughts they have.

Bull:  One of the big overarching solutions that’s being pursued by the city is the TAC plan.  I’m just curious to know as it’s being implemented, what the current status is.

Mayor Vinis:  Well, the overall TAC rollout,  is several years. But the goal in the first year is to address a couple initial aspects, ah, initial recommendations, that would have a more immediate impact.  So the first big thing is finding a location for the 75-bed shelter, so that work is…there’s a committee working on that, they’re looking at properties, they’re evaluating those properties, they’ll have to do outreach to the neighboring businesses, or residents, where ever that property is, so that work is going on in a very robust and thorough way.  

There is work to develop a mobile outreach team, so this sorta complements…it’s somewhere in between what the police do in terms of the community outreach teams on the streets, and CAHOOTS in that you’d have team that’d be out there, meeting people who are homeless, where they are, learning what their needs are, how to help them access services.  

And there is an effort to work with landlords, because one of the challenges with people who have slipped into homeless because of rent increase or having difficulty accessing homeless because they’ve been evicted, is to develop a cohort of landlords that are willing to work with that population.  Those folks would come with support housing, those are some immediate pieces we’ll work on.

Bull: What is the proper balance between fostering commerce and economic development in the city, and also accommodating the poor and unhoused?  Are there other cities that Eugene can look to for reference?

Mayor Vinis:  My standard response to this question is that we’re always in a balancing act between needing to encourage the economic development that we need in order to create the tax revenue to provide the services we need, and we’re in balance…right…we’re growing faster than our tax base is really able to support, we don’t have a good state tax system which is another issue…as we look at what’s happening in our downtown, in terms of that being our economic engine, we have now because of the city’s investment in high speed fiber in our downtown, at the most recent tech tour a month ago, there are 50 tech or tech-dependent industries within walking distance of Kesey Square.  That’s economic development.  

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
EWEB General Manager Frank Lawson (left) and Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis (right) pose with a fiber network cable they joined as part of a 2017 ceremony and announcement.

And those are grow your own jobs, they provide opportunities for people growing up here, going to school here, and those are jobs that hiring people, they’re paying wages, they’re paying taxes, that’s how we begin to develop the capacity to pay for the services we need. When we talk about a community safety payroll tax, we have businesses hiring people, paying that payroll tax, enabling us to provide those services.  So it is a balancing act.  

And it is the same with the Riverfront Development, it is mostly a neighborhood. What we’re building there is essentially a neighborhood.  Those are properties, they’re going to be paying property taxes to be there, also going to be an economic engine for our downtown in terms of doing business downtown. Going to restaurants downtown, again that is how you build that economic foundation so you can pay for your police services, so you can pave your roads, you can do all of the things that the city needs to do.

Bull:  The website Security.org recently said Eugene is first in the U.S. in terms of homelessness, when adjusted for population.  Is that straining resources for the city budget and existing homeless programs?

Mayor VInis: Well…I’m sure (Chief Skinner) will have things to say about this too….but, my first comment is that report is about the entire Lane County, not just Eugene.  So it’s a little unfair to characterize Eugene in that way.  And we are part of a larger regional challenge, the West Coast states are definitely struggling more with homelessness, our economic development is happening so fast, it’s squeezing people out of housing that they can afford, our wages have not all kept up at all levels of the economy.  So we’re part of a regional picture.  And I think that when you look at the percent of population, there are probably still, ah…it breaks out to be 1% of the population which is pretty typical for the West Coast.

Chief Skinner:  Throughout my career, I’ve been doing this 29 years, every year there’s some report that comes out that ranks communities as to which is the most livable, the safest, etc.   And there are about three dozen different organizations, for-profit organizations, that come up with different ways to frame that and use their own metrics to rank us. I don’t give any of those…none of those mean anything to me, because they don’t live in this community, they don’t raise families in this community like I do.  And others do.

So I really struggle when someone comes up to me and says, “Such and such organization identifies you as #1 per capita in homeless”. Which may or may not be true.  The point of this is for me, is that we know we have an issue.  We know that we have a very difficult problem to solve.  And we know that it’s not a police issue.

And so when you think about Security.org saying we have a number one homeless rate per capita, the connection there is somehow that makes us feel unsecure.  And it aggravates me when people jump to those conclusions that somehow connects the dots between homelessness and security, and de facto the police department has to do something about it. 

This is a community problem, and the one thing I do like about conversations I’ve heard with the Wake Up group is that they’re solutions based,  they really are working on solutions together, they are learning, they’re a group that is learning continuously learning new things about what is viable and what’s not.  But at least they’re engaged, and engaged in a sense that it’s community wide solution versus. it being just a police issue, or a city issue, or a Lane County issue.  

So I’m encouraged by the work that’s being done and hopefully there’ll be something that comes out of that.  But I can’t reiterate enough that your police department is an active and engaged member of this community that wants to help solve this problem, but that’s not where the problem gets solely solved.

Bull: One thing that I’ve heard said about the Eugene Wake Up group, is that many in their membership differentiate between homelessness and lawlessness.  They don’t criminalize the homeless.  And I think you yourself have said that it’s a few that choose to be lawless no matter what. 

Chief Skinner:  Well, we see that in every community regardless of the demographic.  We can say the same thing about our juvenile population.  Not all of our kids are criminals or engage in criminal behavior, but we have certain number of kids that are acting out and are engaging in bad behavior, but every demographic has that to  include our homeless, not all of them are engaging in criminal behavior.  

But as we analyze crime in every community I’ve been in - it’s easy for me to point to when you look at crime - there is a small percentage of individuals that are perpetuating the majority of our criminal behavior.  And so the key is how do we focus our energies around those individuals, and hold them accountable, as opposed to making the  assumption that everybody we see is engaged in that kind of criminal behavior?

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
A homeless encampment in West Eugene.

Mayor Vinis:  I just want to say one more thing…if we --through implementing the TAC report, and the other work that we do -- if we’re able to provide housing and supportive services to everyone who wants and needs it, we take the level of pressure in the system way down.  We reduce suffering.  We are stabilizing families, which stabilizes our community.  And then this question of criminalizing homelessness, or the homeless being contributing to our unsafe feelings of the downtown, it just begins to be resolved.

Bull:  Chief Skinner and Mayor Vinis, thank you both for your time.

Chief Skinner and Mayor Vinis: Thank you.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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