Police in Santa Ana could spend more time arresting people who are intoxicated and passed out in public spaces like streets and sidewalks. 

A majority of City Council members supported directing city staff to do so at their regular meeting on Tuesday night, along with ideas of taking inebriated people to the city jail where there’s nursing staff, providing treatment services, and even returning detained people to their cities of origin, in some cases out of state. 

The idea was introduced by City Councilmember Phil Bacerra, after he posted pictures of people sleeping at bus stops in town on Instagram last week. The posts were later removed from his public feed.

Most public speakers who commented at the podium or over the phone on Tuesday spoke in support of the idea.

“I can very confidently and comfortably say I didn’t recognize a lot of the names,” said Bacerra of 77 other comments emailed before the meeting, all but two of them in support of Bacerra’s request. “But that shows you how important this issue is, this isn’t just a small circle of people banging a drum … the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

Bacerra – and colleagues who agreed with him that night – described a city facing a drug problem, not a homelessness problem, where people “can not only obtain drugs but use them uninterrupted,” inject and expose themselves in front of families, an access areas in town serving as an “Ellis Island for fentanyl.”

“We can start building housing tonight,” Bacerra said. “It’s not going to solve the issue of folks passing out in front of our sidewalks, our schools.”

Mayor Valerie Amezcua called on officers to start making contact with people they believe are on drugs.

“There’s a lot of different ways we can do this. I’m not saying sentence them to prison for 30 years, I’m just saying we need to do something about what is happening on our streets,” Amezcua said. 

She also called for more officer recruitment and the arming of private contracted security at city parks. 

“Pretty soon we’re going to look like Los Angeles — it’s going to be the norm. If you’re okay with that, take them then to your home, open your door to them, let them live with you if you’re okay with it,” Amezcua said. “I’m not okay with it.”

“Sometimes jail saves people,” the mayor added. “Saves them from themselves.”

While it had majority support, Bacerra’s idea also drew council criticism.

“My biggest concern is … we get into a conversation like what they had in New York, with stop and frisk,” said Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, who’s Vietnamese American. “I’ve slept on a park bench in public, but I’m not going to be the one that someone comes up to and says, ‘Hey, what’s up? Are you drunk? What’s going on? Let me do a test on you’ because I do not fit the profile.”

“I just want to make sure that whatever it is, we don’t veer into that world,” Phan said, adding that she was interested in staff bringing back more information on Bacerra’s proposal.

The tense discussion that followed on the dais became a debate about whether addiction or homelessness comes first, or whether more incarceration would solve or worsen the problem.

“Locking people up is the fastest way to exasperating the homeless crisis we are all experiencing,” said City Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who added that the comments he heard in support of Bacerra’s idea that night were “rooted in ignorance.”

He said ramped up arrests were “not going to address the underlying mental illnesses these folks have that are unaddressed; it is not going to address the trauma that placed them in a position where homelessness was a solution for them at one point where that was the best idea.”

Though Hernandez said he’d be more open to the proposal if it included “clinicians and social workers” as “part of your strategy and outreach.”

Councilmember Jessie Lopez echoed some of his concerns. 

“The end goal here should not be we’re taking individuals, putting them in jail and they’re going to come back and end up in the exact same spot, that doesn’t solve anything,” Lopez said. 

“How are we helping people transition into a better, more sustainable lifestyle here in our city?” Lopez asked.

Amezcua said the issue has turned her away from parks investment.

“Love parks, parks are great, but families are not going to use them if they’re not safe there. I don’t want to invest any more money in parks — I don’t,” Amezcua said. “Why? … people are afraid … It’s time to do something.”

At the end of the debate, Bacerra turned to look at his idea’s critics: 

“Tonight what you’re hearing up here is more sympathy for folks passed out in our parks and sidewalks. That’s what you’re hearing up here, you’re not hearing sympathy for residents, nobody is trying to solve the problems our residents are facing.”

He added: “Everybody is more concerned about the addicts coming into Santa Ana and passing out on our sidewalks.”

Bacerra then requested every council member make clear their stance on his proposal. 

City Manager Kristine Ridge told the mayor they logged a clear council majority support for staff coming back with more information.

Amezcua then cut off the debate.  

“We have the four, thank you very much, this conversation is over. We’re going to move on.” 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @brandonphooo.

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