San Diego police swarmed the PB Town Council’s Oct. 16 meeting not to protect the proceedings, but rather to arrest mounting anxiety among residents over the rising crime rate and quality-of-life issues.
Matt Novak, recently appointed Acting Captain of the San Diego Police Department’s Northern Division, which includes Pacific Beach, led the charge to reassure residents he would address their concerns and priorities, while officers of the Neighborhood Policing Division and Homeless Outreach Team focused on homelessness and described their efforts to stem the rampant problem.
The almost 100 people in attendance learned about the resurrection of a Guardian Angels chapter in PB — comprised of local volunteers to deter criminal activity through active patrols in the neighborhoods — which are expected to start in December.
“What I’m able to do is take the resources I’m given here in Northern Division, as well as some other specialty units, and then dispense those into areas where we’re having issues,” said Novak, who began his career almost 25 years ago as a rookie in Northern Division only to return as Acting Captain since the beginning of October. “I’m looking forward to really impacting some of the community’s concerns ... Our goal in law enforcement is to make your community safer.”
Following Novak’s introduction, Lt. Carmelin Rivera, head of the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team within the Neighborhood Policing Division, explained his unit’s purpose to approach homeless individuals with offers of assistance, such as shelter through service providers.
Coupled with PERT (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) clinicians, Rivera said his officers are able to tailor a course of action for the individual based on a more precise assessment of his or her situation.
However, resident Gary Reese argued the prevalence of mental illness and drug abuse among much of the homeless population typically precludes their cooperation in any remedy. Citing Section 5150 of the California Welfare & Institutions Code, which allows the state to detain a person determined to be a danger to themselves or others, Reese maintained some homeless individuals pose a real public health danger when, for instance, they defecate in public spaces.
“A lot of these people out on the streets have problems, they don’t want treatment,” Reese said. “A lot of these people need help and they’re not going to get it unless they get it involuntarily.”
Rivera referred to the nuances in the law, delineating the difference between someone brandishing a weapon and someone passed out in a public place. However, he was unequivocal on what Section 5150 and the law doesn’t allow.
“It’s not against the law to be mentally ill,” Rivera reminded those gathered. “When we do take enforcement action, it’s based off the totality of circumstances. I want to make it very clear that 5150 is not something we just use to scoop people up and take them off the streets.”
Yet when Rivera provided contact information for residents to identify homeless individuals that could benefit from his unit’s work, some audience members audibly cringed at the idea police officers from his unit would find time to seek homeless individuals when they sometimes take hours to answer real time calls.
Although Rivera alluded to the police manpower crunch, it was left to Lt. Corissa Pich, head of the Neighborhood Policing Division, to explain the division’s sluggish response time.
She said the Neighborhood Policing Division was created in March 2018, more than a year after the City launched the Get-It-Done app to file complaints. With periodic glitches in the system since its inception, the division has been hounded by difficulties in retrieving complaints amid a plethora of agencies working on the homelessness issue.
Because the Neighborhood Policing Division works closely with the Environmental Services Department, which cleans up homeless encampments and other sites, Pich offered a shortcut for reporting all complaints regarding issues arising from homelessness. (See bullet points, end of story.)
She added that even if a complaint did not fall under the division’s jurisdiction, she could ensure it was routed to the correct agency.
“It’s not a perfect system, folks,” Pich said. “I wish I could promise you that. But what I can tell you perfectly is that I want to help.”
Amid the backdrop of increasing community alarm and failing police engagement, a small group of local volunteers took to the podium to announce the return of the Guardian Angels to Pacific Beach.
Founded in New York City in 1979 by Curtis Silwa, the Guardian Angels were a citizen volunteer group that patrolled the city’s subways in their signature red berets and military-style combat boots to deter criminals with their group presence and to call police and act as witnesses in the event of a crime.
The organization initiated branches in major cities throughout the United States, and then internationally. A chapter was opened in San Diego in the 1980s, but folded almost 30 years ago.
Operating as a non-profit and committed to non-violence, chapter leader Paul McBride said the current crop of volunteers was undergoing training, not only in self-defense but in the organization’s rules and the legal environment of their objective.
“We’re trying to take back the community,” McBride said. “We’re trying to deter crime by being a visual deterrent. If you see five people wearing uniforms walking around, you’re going to be less likely to want to commit a crime at that time. We are capable of making a citizen’s arrest, but we would like to leave that in the hands of the police at all possible moments. So we will take pictures. We will give the police evidence.”
Audience questions proliferated around vetting, weapons, bonding, training and the like. According to McBride, no member will be allowed to carry a weapon and will be patted down at the start of each patrol. The Guardian Angels will work closely with police and have scheduled a meeting with them, confirmed by Acting Capt. Novak. The group will only be as effective as the community support it can generate.
McBride was actively seeking recruits for the PB chapter during his speech.
“We’ll eventually be in Mission Beach,” he said. “We’ll eventually be in Clairemont. We’ll eventually be in San Diego. We will be moving around trying to gather more people. The more people that we can get to work with us, the stronger we will be, the quicker we can take back our communities and empower them.”
• Homeless Outreach Team:
(619) 446-1010, firstname.lastname@example.org
• Neighborhood Policing Division:
• Guardian Angels PB Chapter: