Featured Image: An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy stands guard on May 24, 2019, during the relocation of the North Beach homeless encampment in San Clemente. Photo: File/Cari Hachmann
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version, which had misstated the cost of a deputy sheriff’s annual salary, and that ongoing labor negations would impact the cost of the city’s unfunded pension liabilities.
By C. Jayden Smith
San Clemente residents heard city officials’ thoughts on topics such as homelessness and crime during a Public Safety Town Hall held at City Hall on Wednesday night, Oct. 26.
The panelists included Mayor Gene James, Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan, Councilmember Steve Knoblock, San Clemente Police Services Capt. Tony Benfield, Public Safety Committee member Rick Loeffler, and City Attorney Scott Smith.
Over the course of the town hall, each had the opportunity to give opening and closing comments, as well as answer questions submitted from the audience.
Within Benfield’s opening statement, he clarified that while the number of assaults and burglaries have increased in 2022, overall crime data shows that the city is not experiencing an extremely dangerous time.
He said that the number of people staying home in 2020 led to a dramatic decrease in calls for service, and that numbers for 2021 remained consistent with the previous year as the status of whether businesses and cities were open fluctuated.
“Those two years are somewhat of an anomaly, if you look further back (to) 2018, 2019, with San Clemente’s historical crime data,” Benfield said. “Although there’s a perception that crime has increased, that homelessness has increased, that simply isn’t the case.”
James, who called for the city to organize the discussion, apologized for not listing public safety as a topic of concern in the city’s Fiscal Year 2022-2023 Strategic Priorities. He said he intended to introduce a motion to retroactively do so for the current fiscal year, as well as every following year.
“The need for this town hall, I think, serves as testimony to provide the perception of a safe and secure environment,” said James. “We can talk all day long (about) whether it’s reality or whether it’s perception.”
James said the city should take any crime against a resident as a personal afront, whether it be a property crime, such as a burglary, or a home invasion. The city’s objectives should include preventing residents from those experiences, he said.
Other concerns included the ongoing labor negotiations between the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs that could lead to increased spending on public safety.
Knoblock, who’s seeking reelection to the council this November, acknowledged the Police Services department’s limitations with 37 deputies to cover more than 18 square miles and more than 65,000 residents.
He suggested increasing Code Compliance personnel to monitor homeless encampments and expanding the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, to include younger people, as he believed many around the community would volunteer.
James forecasted that the labor negotiations would lead to a significant pay increase for the deputies. To address the homelessness concerns, he said he would like the city to look at allocating resources towards more Code Compliance, Park Rangers, and community service officers.
Many audience questions centered on homelessness downtown and near North Beach, as residents called for more to be done to remedy the stench of defecation and the look of unattended property.
James and Knoblock shared the concerns, with the mayor emphasizing his thoughts that supportive housing, as some advocates have called for, wasn’t the solution either.
“That does nothing but spend taxpayers’ money and does nothing for the problem,” said James. “We’ve got to figure out how to move these people along, and I don’t have an answer for that (right now).”
In response to a question on how citizens were being protected from being harmed by a homeless person, Benfield stated that deputies do not anticipate crimes. He added that they don’t have any authority to intervene with what a person could do or tell a person to leave a public place unless the person is violating a city code, for example, blocking a sidewalk.
“We can try (to be anticipatory), based on predictive models, if we believe burglaries are about to occur in a certain area,” said Benfield. “We can deploy resources to try to prevent that. But we cannot engage with someone based on what they may be capable of.”
Knoblock commented that concerns centered more on a person setting up camp in a public area, and Smith followed, saying that while San Clemente’s municipal code regarding sleeping on or occupying public space is aggressive, people are allowed to be without shelter and sleep in public before dawn.
“You’re allowed to sleep there, you’re allowed to be cold and to warm yourself if you’re without housing in the city,” Smith clarified. “But you can’t leave an encampment up. It can’t block an entrance or exit to a public facility. It can’t have a fire in a high fire hazard area.”
Despite the existence of code and personal property regulations, James and residents believed too many calls needed to be made regarding property that has been left out. Such sentiments led James to calling for additional presence and activity from Code Compliance and Park Rangers.
Loeffler on Wednesday touched on the city’s five-hour limit for parking RVs on a city street or alley—a code violation deputes monitor and cite, Benfield said.
In relation to camping in the city, Loeffler asked why RVs seemingly could be parked overnight under the Martin v. City of Boise ruling that allows people to sleep in public if there isn’t adequate indoor shelter offered.
Benfield said that the ruling in itself didn’t articulate about every potential circumstance.
“It dealt with a single case, but the broadly accepted interpretation by the courts and by judges here in Orange County, covers two things in general: camping ordinances and loitering.”
“The policy of the sheriff and many other agencies is that we will not welcome this litigation by enforcing camping and/or loitering laws if there’s no housing opportunities, if there’s no shelter for them to be taken to,” Benfield continued. “And that doesn’t matter if you’re in a car or not.”
Even in situations where a person passing through may stop for a few hours in their RV, Benfield said it was too difficult for deputies to determine whether a person was taking a short break or actually sleeping overnight.
Benfield advised the public to call the police if they see anything suspicious or a potential code violation. From there, he added, just allow the deputies to see the situation for themselves as they’ll know whether they could take any enforceable action.
Duncan, who’s running for the 74th State Assembly seat, added that he wanted private property owners, such as shopping center operators, to call Police Services if they encountered people in cars longer than the allotted time.
Speaking to homelessness, Duncan said he thought Orange County was primarily responsible for monitoring the issue by utilizing health services and opening shelter-type facilities.
“Then we could empower the deputies to have a place for people to go in South County—not in some poor city, which volunteered to be the place where the shelter is, but on county land,” Duncan said before citing the county’s Be Well mental health facility as an example.
Benfield mentioned the annual Point in Time Count (PIT), in which volunteers survey all unhoused persons on the streets of Orange County cities on one day in January, as a good resource for understanding the homeless population and its demographics.
“I’m happy that even though ours went down by 15 between 2019 and 2022—not a huge number—they certainly weren’t stagnant and they weren’t trending up,” said Benfield. “Again, with the perception that homelessness is worse now than it’s ever been, it is actually—according to the data—a little bit better than it was in 2019, prior to the pandemic.”
According to the 2022 PIT, 585 homeless individuals—422 unsheltered and 163 sheltered—were counted within Orange County’s South Service Planning Area (SPA). That total marked a 23.3% decrease from 2019.
In San Clemente specifically, 131 homeless people were surveyed, a drop from the 145 counted in 2019.
Many of Benfield’s answers to questions regarding efforts to “clean up” North Beach, public urination, and drug use involved encouraging residents to call the department if they noticed suspicious actions or had concerns.
In turn, residents in the audience expressed indignation at the significant role they believed they were supposed to play in community safety.
Benfield said that deputies do, in fact, respond to calls for service even when delayed, in response to a North Beach resident talking about a homeless woman living on a sidewalk.
“Unfortunately, it’s a public nuisance, it is an eyesore, there are concerns related to health and safety,” he said. “But that falls way down the spectrum compared to all of the other calls that are occurring, particularly at night, in the city.”
Both State Assemblymember Laurie Davies and State Sen. Patricia Bates appeared at the town hall and were given opportunities to share their thoughts on crime and homelessness.
Davies, who’s running for reelection against Duncan, touched on providing unhoused persons with an advocate when necessary to make decisions about receiving services, having the state consistently stick with people to help them manage their addiction and mental health, and establishing tougher laws to hold criminals accountable.
Bates, who’s looking to unseat Board Supervisor Katrina Foley for the county’s Fifth District, pointed to a general shift towards being soft on crime. She also said there’s a lack of tangible success with criminal justice reform programs that intend to treat mental health and rehabilitate inmates, referencing a conversation she had with parole boards.
“They can’t answer the question that there’s any data showing that those programs are working and that they’re even here, because the people that are responsible for putting them is law enforcement and the local governments,” Bates said.
“That’s a real huge gap in what we’re hearing about criminal justice reform and a more compassionate approach to hopefully putting people back on the right track,” Bates continued.
To close, the panelists talked about the importance of giving residents a chance to speak their minds and reassuring the audience of their dedication to public safety in San Clemente.
“They said, ‘Don’t do a town hall if you don’t have solutions,’” James said. “I really don’t have solutions, (but) I needed to hear from you all.”
He continued, saying he would take the feedback and formulate a plan to discuss with other councilmembers how to add room for more Code Compliance officers and Park Rangers within the city budget.
The next City Council meeting will occur at City Hall at 910 Calle Negocio on Tuesday, Nov. 1, starting at 5 p.m.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.