Skip to main content
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Roundtable: Downtown Homeless Arrests

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available.

February 1, 2019 1:12 p.m.


Abbie Alford, reporter, CBS8

Gene Cubbison, former anchor/reporter, NBC7

Scott Lewis, editor-in-chief, Voice of San Diego

Alex Riggins, reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Subscribe to the Roundtable podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

Related Story: Roundtable: Downtown Homeless Arrests


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Kaye PBS is supported by the law firm of Mintz working with startups and growing companies Mintz legal services can help clients raise capital secure space and protect intellectual property to achieve strategic goals. More at MedStar calm. Mintz built on excellence driven by change.

A spike in arrests downtown in areas where the homeless gather why San Diego Police say the timing had nothing to do with the annual homeless count. Lives ended and some somewhere changed forever. What we learned from San Diego's first school shooting 40 years ago this week and where the drones fit in when it comes to law enforcement a status check on the pilot program in Chula Vista. I'm Mark Sauer the K PBS roundtable starts now.

Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories I'm Mark Sauer. And joining me at the PBS roundtable today Scott Lewis editor in chief of Voice of San Diego reporter Abbie Alford of KMBC TV Jeanne Culberson former reporter with NBC 7 San Diego and reporter Alex Riggins of the San Diego Union Tribune being homeless is not a crime in America but those destitute and living on the streets can be picked up for pitching a tent or stashing belongings on public property and a rash of such arrests downtown last week last week raised red flags among advocates for the homeless in San Diego.

The timing was suspicious and start Scott start with how many folks were arrested and were worthy and why is the timing being questioned.

Well they were in the East Village. There was more than 60 I believe and not necessarily just for four encampments and such. There was a lot of drug dealing and other things that were picked up on. The timing was worrisome because that count is really important and the integrity that counted is really important. It's how we get funding but it's also a serious metric that we can use to determine whether things are getting better or not. And so the police say and the city says they were just responding to concerns in the area that encampments had grown up around these village and that there had been rains recently and they didn't want to do any actions while training was had while rain was coming so they went in after that.

I don't actually doubt that that might be true. It's just that that there were some homeless advocates and leader in particular of the regional task force on the homelessness who said in the future we should try to have a moratorium on that kind of action before this major count. And it's the constant tension really when you look at it between the short term solutions of cleaning the streets and stuff like that. And then the long term what are we going to do about this problem which is sort of represented by that county in the county referred to of course is the annual homeless census.

So they take a snapshot of one day point in time.

Right. Right. Volunteers fanned out throughout the region try to get a sense they they tried to talk to hundreds of homelessness homeless residents themselves. They wake them up and say hey why are you here what's your circumstance. Can I get you some help. All these things and then all that data goes in and they can use that to make better decisions for again that long term solution that we're trying to find.

Okay. And the advocates for the homeless they were really caught off guard. They didn't see this coming before.

Well there was not only some kind of guy. There was some making just straight accusations that the mayor and others were trying to you know mess with the count. We didn't find anything that we didn't asserting that in that story in this that that was that was the cause of a lot of defensiveness at the city. I think that there's a good chance that they got their signals crossed they or that they just didn't care necessarily that the count was coming it was more important to react to some of the complaints going on.

The fact is there was an enforcement activity that triple the number of rest the from the weeks before and and it may have disrupted the count. And that worried some people.

Right and when you get folks who are arrested and if they're in jail they're not in the county right.

If they're not necessary they are counted in a way they're not part of the official count that goes to HUD. And it's more of an estimate but it doesn't look like it's not also just that the total count. It's also where people are you know we want to understand where they are so if they get pushed off the street well that you know that street did have people before that. And so it's it's a whole bunch of different things going on. The fact is is that counties is it's important it has really increased.

Yeah. Tell us about that a little bit. Where do the numbers go and what's done with them and what's the impact.

Well the department the Housing and Urban Development part of the feds that's what they use to decide funding and that's what's used to decide a bunch of other things on top of that funding from other sources and and also just activities going on and so. And again it's it's a metric for us like did it did homelessness get better. Did we did we make a dent. And I think you know again the police office officers and the mayors office really wanted us to know how bad things were in these villages is why they did this activity which is another indication about how bad things still are.

You know if you want us to keep putting out like nothing has changed nothing has gotten better in these areas. And and we've had two years almost of complete urgency about this topic. So you want us to keep pointing out how sure but we aren't looking away from what's wrong. But the account is special and important.

Ryan a reporter Lisa Heller said We've had her on many times talking via this topic on this show but she pointed out in her story in voice that the number of those actually arrested may be only part of the story because people scatter them. It hasn't a ripple effect.

Yeah. You think about triple the amount of brass that means there's triple amount of the activity which means there was a triple the amount of disruption and all kinds of stuff. People yeah. People are afraid that you know being homeless is not a crime but they're all sorts of crimes that pop pile up when you're doing that especially if there's drugs and alcohol involved and and you know the police officers again very proud that they got several dozen people that they say were dangerous or preying on the homeless off streets. That's fine again.

But it's also an indication about how bad things are.

And we did. You mentioned the response from the police. San Diego Police Captain Scott wall responded on social media of TV folks we're gonna put a little of that up and I'll paraphrase this neighborhood policing division created this march has three responsibilities balance every single day public safety quality of life in the neighborhoods assisting those experience homelessness with services and shelter so I mean he's talking about look this was a legitimate thing we're out there working with and we're not just arresting them.

And I didn't I don't think this story did anything to point out that they did anything cruel that they did anything wrong. As far as what the police themselves did. Again the question is it came right before this count that counts important. And so I think that you know it was rather inappropriate for the city to put the police on the defensive about this the police just carried out their orders. It was the city's leadership that made these decisions to do this kind of activity activity right before that count. And so I don't have I talked to the captain and we had a great conversation and I don't think he did it.

I didn't. I don't have any problem with what they did necessarily responding but the timing is something it's not my fault it was that awkward you know. And so I want them to deal with that. Right.

Couple of minutes left in this segment they did want to talk about the count itself. It hasn't it hasn't changed a lot in recent years the numbers I've got. Ninety one hundred sixteen and twenty seventeen eighty five hundred seventy six in twenty eighteen so it down a little bit drop a six percent there. But how accurate is that count I don't think anybody involved with it says look this is we found everybody.

No I don't find anybody but they do try to do projections they try to use multipliers they find this many our vs for example they try to figure out how many more that might represent. But I think that's that was part of the problem last year there was a lot of people concerned that they weren't counting some people and vehicles very well stuff like that. Look we can't make good decisions about what to do about the homelessness crisis unless we know what the crisis is. And and what the solution so metrics are really important.

And the city has had this really loose relationship with metrics there. They're like Well we're trying to get people on the street we're trying to do stuff now we're not going to sit here and wait for a plan. Well it would be nice to have actual metrics that we're all agreeing are the most important metrics where we're at now and where we're going to be. How many homes we have to build how many all these things we have to do and the more we push off of those things that the more we'll be stuck sweeping the streets all the time and having these conversations.

So that's kind of the point is like let's step back let's get this right and let's make sure that we do things that actually change the crisis.

All right well we're gonna we're going to move on but the figures should be out very soon I think from what we learned there that last week in January. All right well we're gonna move on. It was a time before lockdown drills and active shooter training. A normal Monday morning 40 years ago erupted in death and horror at an elementary school in the normally quiet San Carlos neighborhood. A 16 year old girl who lived across the street opened fire with a rifle and here's how Kay FNB TV reporter Jesse Macias described it.

Then. Minutes after 16 year old Brenda Spencer started shooting.

Police officers arrived at the scene ready to take any necessary action in order to avoid any further bloodshed. After neighbors nearby residents and all the schoolchildren were safely evacuated. Police map out their strategy prepared for either lengthy negotiations or for an assault. Police took every precaution to keep onlookers away from the line of fire.

All right. Jeanne you covered this terrible event and you were press reporter there and even though you spent most your career in television set the scene for us. Describe what you saw there that day in that neighborhood.

Well it was chaos and shocking. That's a word. Maybe it's you know. A cliche but nobody had seen or heard something of that magnitude for the longest time. There'd been individual school shootings gang somebody bang bang one to the other. But 11 people 11 people a principal and a custodian and shot that right. And there were two newspapers on scene for that time the union had not gotten together with the Tribune at that time the Tribune being the afternoon paper was the first in on scene. And they did some very good work in finding out who's there what's happening and so they used what was fairly normal in those days and you used the word normal.

It was not a normal Saturday. And I got one of the reverse directories if you got a reverse directory. It had held every telephone number that they could find hooked to an address so that you could find out well hey who lives here who lives there. And they began calling. I'm not gonna say randomly but methodically zeroing in on where the shooter was and they set me on and they said you live in that neighborhood you're on the street. What's going on there we understand that there's gunfire. Kids are being shot.

What do you see what do you hear what can you tell us about that and a young woman or a girl teenage girl said Yeah that's me right. Had her on the phone and that's yeah. That is the shock there. Hey we've got the shooter right. And they begin when I say interviewing her over the phone. Yeah. She was saying that I just don't like Mondays. They're a real downer and they could not believe that they had the real story there and they began putting that together or taking it down to get that on the next edition that they could possibly put out.

And why are you doing this. I don't like Mondays are such a downer and that later became I think as you have said you know a song coming out of out of Ireland where the Boomtown Rats. I don't like Mondays. I don't like lousy Mondays. And so what the police did finally they did. They knew where the shots were coming from. They were on scene and they managed to drive. Was it a garbage truck or some other large vehicle garbage.

I think your story so it was a garbage truck right.

Yeah hold that a line of fire and began pulling kids out so that they at least had some comfort in knowing these kids aren't going to get shot others are behind this truck and we've got to pull them out somehow to get medical help for them which they did. But at that time they already had gunned down the principal and a custodian.

All right I want to give the names of that was Michael Sarkar principal Burton Wright who were killed and as you said eight children shot and three adults gloomily. A police officer. Well Abby you interviewed this week Chris Stanley who was in third grade at that school and of course the press reports immediately focus on those shot and in these situations here. But it just ripples through everybody's life is upended with any proximity to this terrible event.

Right because even talking to him on Monday it was through and the school district. They have Ed talks monthly and they were talking about school shooting so they had other school leaders and police there and they brought in Chris Stanley who's now a middle school teacher in Santee. And he had never talked about it since that day the shooting. I said you know you have never talked about this. He said I did that day and I never have sense. And he said do you tell your students and he says absolutely not.

And to see a 48 year old man I mean he still just continued tearing up for the full hour of this talk as we were interviewing him to see the pain that he still goes through. And you know you try to talk to him about it and he says that's just for me. I keep it to myself and that's for me to deal with it. For me to think about. I don't want to have to have to share this. But he says you know he finally wanted to be able to share it because he knows that there's still so much that needs to be done to change.

His big thing is that his class sizes and I think a lot of us don't really think we think about gun rights and taking guns away or doing these different things. But he just says for him as a teacher he wants to have smaller classroom sizes. He feels like he can build a better rapport with his students that way. And I thought that was an interesting fact because we haven't really looked into that and he feels like if he has a better relationship with 20 students rather than 40 students or 60 students that he can have a.

Keep a better eye on them and their health and access to health care too.

And Jean you mentioned how though how this played out were that Monday morning a police officer commandeer that garb trucking blocked and saved as so many folks and got help for those. How did it eventually play out. It went on for several hours and she was on the phone but the SWAT team showed up and tell us how it played out.

Well I was not the first on scene from the union. We had people on the scene already and I got blocked by the truck. It was my job mission to go up and down the street and to get reaction from the neighbors find out what they were doing. They might have known her or what might have known her yeah. It's the word in the neighborhood was she she was a troubled child. He was a troubled child. Her father was troubled.

The marriage had broken up and so I was there might have been later they learn they might have been some sexual abuse involved and drugs in the home. Correct. Correct. She was a student herself at Patrick Henry High School which is nearby.

Yes she was. And we we tried to interview him. It was not me that day but someone later went to the house when he was home and he just slammed the door on their feet in their face. My thought was is this gonna be a one a one off event. This didn't happen very often. I mean we are getting this kind of thing more and more unfortunately it's come on kind of a regular in this world. Yeah. What happened to her. It's got. To Brenda. Yeah eventually she did surrender.

She came out and put her guns down and they took her in quietly. I suppose yeah but she has been since. And what is it. How many years now since 40 40 or 40 40 years exactly she has been in lockup and with no chance of parole.

Yeah they've had some hearings and it's just it's just it's not going to happen.

There was one have one the first one as a matter of fact. And by that time she was she was cutting herself. You can see that her hair was all snagged and it was strange and she didn't. As I recall say anything she just sat there and I sat behind her and she just slumped over and the parole people just was pretty quick saying you're done with. And every five years I believe her. That was the time then that they said OK come back in five years we'll see what she's doing.

Yeah. She denied four times denied parole four times and I think she a parole hearing this year.

I didn't want to bring up she had written after one of the recent parole hearings where she was denied she wrote to her defense attorney quote what I did was horrible so I don't really complain about the amount of time I've I've done such a long time. So there is I wanted to mention in the event that you cover in the interview with a survivor of that shooting there is a forum coming up and you mentioned that in your story to address address gun violence in schools. Tell us about that.

Yeah. The Brady Campaign had mentioned in this ad talks meeting that on February 15th they're going to have student town hall forum on gun violence in schools and the prevention and it'll be at Canyon crest Academy at 530 and there's going to be thousands of students from all across the country. So if you're San Diego students and as well as Parkland survivors as well because as we know after the parkland shooting had happened many of them had been on a crusade to try to end gun violence in schools. And so they're gonna be coming here as well.

So I think it's going to be pretty amazing to see students talking about this.

And one of the survivors on a year afterwards I say it's the tenth anniversary that whenever we came 10th no is it longer than that. He had become a parole or probation officer in this city and he recalled that very seriously and said you know this is what I want to do. This is what I'm going to do. I was steered in that direction by having survived that and wanted to be a part somebody who could stand in the way of that. And so he's done that too I forget his name but we had him on the air fascinating story I'll tell you.

And unfortunately as we said it's become all too big of a ride. We move on to the next topic but we do have obviously election season coming up the parking students have been very noticeable maybe this has become part of the debate as we enter the 2020 election season.

Well we are going to move on as in the fog of war police officers are often severely limited in what they can see and know as a crime is going down. That's where drones come in. The tiny camera equipped craft are literally eyes in the sky. And police in Chula Vista are finding out what drones can and can't do. So I'll start with with right there how did the police in Chula Vista have they used drones successfully so far.

So the way that they use them is you know they kind of had their regular use which is basically business hours Monday through Friday. They can fly within one hour a mile radius of the Chula Vista just a short distance. Yeah. They have to be in line of sight. So they respond to nine one one calls they if they get nine one one call within a mile of the department they'll you know they'll fly it out there just to check out what's going on before officers arrive. That's kind of the standard way that they're using them.

But they found some creative ways to use them as well. Lastly last year there was a little fire out kind of on the east side of the town brushfire. Yeah. And so they got the drone up above it so they could see where it's spreading how quickly that sort of thing. When there was a homicide there was a a road rage incident where one driver stabbed another and so tip you know before they had a drone or drones I should say they would get a fire truck ladder and they'd get up above the scene and take pictures of it that way with a drone that could just pop out up there and you know get video and pictures.

It's kind of been finding creative ways going back to what Scott was talking about before the before the count last week a homeless guy. Yeah the homeless count they got up above an area where they have a homelessness problem and they and they kind of checked it out a day or two before just to see what was going to be there when they went in. You know it was gonna be 10 people was there going to be 500 people. You know whatever the case was. So they put their Jones up above that just to just to get a lay of the land before they went in and actually did the counting so if found some creative ways to use them and this is a pilot program so to speak it is yeah.

Yeah. So last year there was a 10 cities or agencies around the country that were chosen by the federal government to take part in this pilot program. The city of San Diego is putting together their own proposal. Chula Vista was putting together a separate proposal for the police department. And when they found that out they just combined them. And so you know the city of San Diego plus the two of us the police department were chosen for this integration pilot program by the U.S. Transportation Department. And so there's there's 10 cities or agencies around the country that were chosen for this.

They kind of got fast tracked FAA approval to to put the drones up in the sky. There's some really interesting things going on. You know they're going to in the future and they're going to be testing you know package delivery medical delivery so you go and get your blood drawn and instead of waiting for a courier to take it you know a few hours later they can stick it in and drone fly straight to the lab where they know where they test the blood that sort of thing is gonna be tested right here in San Diego.

But kind of the first agency to get going was the Chula Vista Police Department because they didn't need as much testing before they go out and fly these things they can kind of get right on it and you're story noted they had a few glitches long way hasn't been hit yet. So so they have two drones that are kind of their their best ones. And and just a few weeks into the program there is a firmware issue. So it wasn't an issue on their side it was the company that makes the drones DJI which is based on mechanical failure.

Yeah basically they couldn't tell the battery life. So it could have 10 10 percent left and they would tell them they have 30 percent left so just fall out of the sky out of nowhere. And that didn't happen in Chula Vista but they were afraid that it might. And so they had to ground those those two best drones which have 30 times zoom lot capability. Just just very very strong powerful cameras that had to use you know less powerful drones for about two months actually until earlier this month.

So I wanted to raise the issue about if there's a civil liberties issue here obviously if a police officer if they want to go in your backyard and want to go in your home or observe what's going on generally to get a warrant it's a hot pursuit. But here we've got a drone flying over your property looking down on you.

Have you heard complaints both from civil libertarians or so there's there's been no specific examples yet of of a drone flying over a house and peering into it or anything like that. But there's certainly you know ACL use raising concerns about what drones could do in the future. You know they've they've put out statements I didn't touch on that on my last story. But on a previous story I had talked to someone from their organization. And they're certainly worried about privacy issues. They're worried about drones surveying protests and things like that where you know capturing video and radar and recording who's there and who's protesting what and what it's like.

We rarely have helicopters right and they fly around but that on the one hand the drones would be better quieter. You would even perhaps notice that right. On the other hand you wouldn't notice. Right. You know then you would. That's the problem right. You you helicopter you're aware they're up there. There's obviously something serious going on that the drone could be sitting up to above your house watching you do everything. You never know.

Sure. And with those powerful cameras they could be a half mile away. You'd never see it. Never hear it. And with that powerful game where they could see right in. You know so there are certainly privacy concerns and it comes down so you've got a couple of pilots somewhere in a remote area who are flying these right and looking at the cameras it comes down to kind of their decision on what we're shooting what we're recording right exactly the way the way that Chula Vista does it have a pilot that's in a control room inside the police department and then they have another kind of co-pilot that's on the roof that can see it all the time but yeah.

That that's that's the exact concern is is they can they can be remote controlling the drone and and be you know peering into homes you know looking on protests whatever the case that's that's certainly a concern. Chula Vista right now is being really open really transparent about the way that they're using them. They're kind of motto is that we're not we're not being proactive we're being reactive. So they only respond to 9 11 calls. They're not flying them around looking for crime or anything like that. But certainly in the future you know that that is the concern is that privacy can be very easily invaded with these.

All right we're almost out of time. I did want to ask you though on the positive side of it how how effective is a Ben there's been some arrests thanks to the drones and some effective policing.

Yeah as of January 11th and it started in late October as of January 11th and they'd helped in making 14 arrests. Obviously the drones aren't doing that but you know they look at the scene and the officers and the officers can actually pull up an app on their cell phone on their way to the scene so they can see what's going on before they get there. So it's you know it should improve offer officer safety is a big idea. And you know they use them to two hundred and thirty one times between that late October mid-January.

So there has been some success for sure.

Well we'll look for some follow ups and see what they what they say. It sounds like once you get the drones you may not come back we'll see what happens. Well that does wrap up another week of stories at the PBS roundtable. I'd like to thank my guests Scott Lewis the voice of San Diego Abby Alford of Kiev FNB TV Jeanne Cummings covers and formerly with NBC 7 San Diego and Alex Riggins of the San Diego Union Tribune. Reminder all the stories we discussed today available on our Web site PBS. Oh gee.

I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today on the roundtable.