An effort to crack down on people passed out in Santa Ana’s public spaces – and move them back to their home state if their ID doesn’t say ‘California’ – has led to hundreds of public intoxication arrests spanning August and September.

But some council members are raising questions about whether the initiative’s worth the cost – taking people to jail to offer them educational pamphlets and health hotlines, only to release them into nearby neighborhoods and place a total of two people into shelters that month. 

It comes after a majority of City Council members voiced support for the idea in July, led by Councilmember Phil Bacerra, who said he and many residents were tired of seeing open-air drug use on a daily basis.

Earlier this year, he was joined by colleagues like Mayor Valerie Amezcua – and scores of residents during public comment at council meetings – who said the city’s facing a drug crisis, and that offering resources to people, after arresting and jailing them, was a more effective measure.

Public intoxication is already illegal in California, and Santa Ana police said at the time they’ve always enforced the law, but after a ramped-up campaign kicked off in August, the department reported a major uptick in field encounters and arrests compared to last year.

“We have had a significant increase in contacts,” said Assistant Police Chief Robert Rodriguez in a public presentation to City Council members at their regular meeting on Tuesday.

In a slideshow, Rodriguez compared arrests between August 15 and September 15 for both this year and last: Police made 41 contacts with people over this time period in 2022, with 39 public intoxication arrests. 

This year: The department’s downtown, quality of life and directive patrol teams logged 216 arrests, while the patrol division – which Rodriguez didn’t include in the data as he said he just received those numbers that night – logged 486 arrests.

“In addition to the 216,” Rodriguez said, which would mean a total of 702 arrests. 

But different officials have since given differing arrest totals – Mayor Amezcua stated a total of “842” arrests, by her count, from the dais Tuesday night. 

A police department spokesperson, asked for clarity by Voice of OC on Thursday, said in an email that the total arrests were 486 – and that the 216 arrests in Rodriguez’s report were “included” in the total figure.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Rodriguez said the data’s likely flawed as “it’s very difficult to extrapolate that data.”

“Some numbers could be duplicated,” Rodriguez said. “Gathering that data is tedious work because they have to go through every single report to find out who made the arrest, who made the citation or not.” 

Of the reported encounters between police and people on the streets between August and September, just two people went to a shelter, Rodriguez said, with four people transported for medical treatment.

The department also logged 374 hours of overtime as a result of the public intoxication campaign. 

Council members like Johnathan Ryan Hernandez and Ben Vazquez questioned whether the campaign was resulting in the release of people from jails into neighborhoods like Flower Park.

Hernandez said people living there “requested we pause enforcement due to the increase of homelessness we see at Flower Park, Angels Park and in some cases getting closer to Artesia Pilar, Washington Square neighborhoods.”

They also questioned the adequacy of the resources police were offering to people arrested – pamphlets and phone numbers connecting people with the city’s homeless services provider, CityNet, or the county’s behavioral health hotline. 

“During this 30-day period, staff said the enforcement costs were $48,000. Part of why I opposed this item for my colleagues is because it is a very expensive item for us to simply hand out educational info. The report synthesized that what we’ve been doing is handing people educational materials,” Hernandez said. 

He added: “They’re not voluntarily utilizing those materials by becoming part of a program where there’s case management or where they’re having continuity of care.”

Those questions were echoed by Bacerra during the discussion.

“Has that been successful anywhere? Even before this policy? Has it been successful to give someone a pamphlet? Do they normally say, ‘Wow, thanks for the pamphlet. I’m going to go to the shelter now?’” 

Rodriguez said officers will often try to persuade people to connect with those resources and “even call the services for them.” 

Bacerra also questioned whether the department was “proactively” offering to transport people back to their place of origin, or reunite people with their families. 

Rodriguez responded, “If they have family members – yes, we are offering.”

Bacerra replied, “But are we proactively offering them? In other words, we see their ID and it doesn’t say ‘California,’ are we offering it to them?” 

“I believe we’re offering it to everyone,” said Rodriguez, later adding that no such transports have happened yet under the operation.  

Bacerra said the public intoxication campaign was meant to be “myopic” – that it’s not meant to target homeless people or the homelessness issue.

“This is not about solving homelessness. This is purely about enforcing existing intoxication laws. For the folks you’re arresting — if there are folks that happen to be experiencing homelessness and happen to be from outside of Santa Ana and Orange County and we’re able to reunite them with families, that’s always a wonderful thing to hear,” Bacerra said. 

He continued: “It has nothing to do with whether they’re houseless or not. It’s when they’re passed out, when there’s a group of them all conducting illegal narcotic activity impacting quality of life for our residents. There are some that are publicly intoxicated that are violating state laws that just might be houseless — but that’s not the focus here. The focus is for these folks not to impact our residents and businesses.”

Mayor Amezcua, who vocally supported the campaign, said it’s about officers making contact “with that person asleep on the grass, or setting up a home on the grass, and to offer assistance.” 

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