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For years the city of Eureka has suffered from a myriad of issues, resulting in a state of constant disorder. And despite a lot of effort, substance abuse, homelessness and crime always top the list.
In 2009 the Eureka Police Department decided to develop a special unit to address the problems that lie beyond patrol and emergency calls, and try to find solutions.
It’s known as the Problem Oriented Policing unit, or POP team, and today they’re more vital than ever.
The POP team is made up of a handful of officers, and in the next two LoCO Video Reports we spend some time with two of the team’s most highly experienced officers — Captain Patrick O’Neill and Sergeant Rodrigo Sanchez, who have each been with the department for around 20 years.
The team focuses on drug houses, nuisance abatement issues, prostitution rings, the city’s most hardened criminals, citizen complaints and other chronic issues. But in our time to see them in action, we first roll around town scoping out areas where people continue to illegally camp.
We kicked things off at the foot of Del Norte Street and headed back behind the Bayshore Mall.
The greenbelt was once covered in illegal encampments and became synonymous with drug use and crime. It was known as the “Devil’s Playground.” That was until last year, when a mass eviction took place. There was extensive cleanup, the waterfront trail was constructed, and law enforcement stepped up. But although the area looks light-years better, problems still exist.
Sanchez says, “Since we had the major clean-up, it seems like the people hanging on and refused all services just want to be out here, regardless of what we tell them.”
Some just wander aimlessly with their belongings and pets, and then there are those who try a little harder to evade the law — and use their creativity to do so. We visit two pallet and wood dwellings that were constructed back in the bush by known habitual illegal campers. Burn piles, mounds of garbage, drugs, paraphernalia, and other contraband scattered the scenes.
O’Neill says, “We hand out resource cards, we give them resources, we explain to them places they can contact, get help — from clothing to medical to food — but a lot don’t want to get involved because there’s rules and they don’t want to follow the rules.”
Another concern is the threat to the environment and public health. POP said even with continuous efforts, they’re still hauling between 1,000 to 1,500 pound of trash out from the greenbelt area per week.
“What they’re burning — the hazmat of the needles, caps and sharps — this is creating an unhealthy environment by anybody, and we just cant allow it,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill has a strong belief that majority of people living like this have some sort of substance abuse, and bases that off his daily interactions.
One illegal camper admits that his substance abuse is a contributor to his homelessness. Saying he spends about $20 a day on methamphetamine, which is roughly a 1/2 gram.
But the POP team didn’t write any of these people a citation or haul them off to jail, because they’re trying to make a bigger impact by building relationships and encouraging them to find other options.
“We try and work with them, what the problem is, how we can assist them. After 10 minutes they open up and we get the opportunity to see what their issues are, help them out, and we’ve had some successes,” said O’Neill.
Interim Chief Steve Watson help start the POP team and says they’re interactions with people are essential to finding solutions.
“They get to look at the broader picture and some strategies that go beyond making an arrest and dropping them off at the revolving door that the jail is and then heading back out to catch the next one,” he says.
The illegal camping is just a fraction of what the POP team deals with, since there’s no shortage of problems to address, but Chief Watson says it’s going to take time.
“You can never give up,” he says. “But rather than wholesale sweeping change, which might not be a realistic goal with the scope of our problems and limited resources, but positive incremental change.”
We also check out a problematic spot under the Samoa Bridge, that’s been transformed into somewhat of a studio apartment, and get a surprise visitor.
Next, we’ll visit a few places where people are doing as they please, right out in public.
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