San Antonio’s new cite-and release-program makes me uncomfortable. While I can understand there are certain criminal offenses that may qualify, I do not agree that all crimes against another person or a business should be included in the cite-and-release program. Letting people off the hook for those offenses is wrong.
The only sense of relief I have is that under the program, officers can decide to ticket someone for a low-level offense instead of making an arrest. I am confident that our officers recognize that there is a big difference between crimes against others and other small offenses. For example, if someone steals from a business or damages a property owner’s fence or car – a crime against another person – those offenses should carry more weight than those in which someone is only harming themselves.
In addition to the implementation of the cite-and-release program, the District Attorney recently initiated a new policy to no longer press charges for criminal trespassing. This leaves a serious gap in realistically addressing the effects of crime against our neighbors and businesses, as well as in addressing substance abuse disorders and mental health issues plaguing our homeless community.
Without the ability for police officers to arrest homeless and panhandling individuals who are loitering and trespassing on private property, patrons may stop choosing to frequent certain businesses due to unsightly conditions or fear of being harassed. Additionally, without being contacted by the police for trespassing, a homeless person who is in need of mental health assistance may not receive the help they desperately need. Every point of contact that a homeless person receives from the City or from Haven for Hope is another one that may help them get back on their feet.
What do we tell our small businesses that suffer from trespassing and intimidation by aggressive homeless or panhandling individuals? And what do we tell the business owners and their employees when someone walks in, grabs merchandise and walks out, knowing that if they are apprehended by the police they may just get a citation? Good people’s lives are going to be in danger because of these programs.
We know substance abuse disorders and mental illness play a large role in homelessness. When left unchecked, these disorders escalate in their effect on the community. Theft often accompanies a substance abuse disorder, and including these crimes under the cite-and-release program will only harm our local businesses. How is this rational? This policy hurts our hard-working residents and places employees in harm’s way.
In the most recent City Council Public Safety briefing on cite-and-release, it was unclear how repeat offenders would be tracked. As the program is in early stages, tracking might prove difficult, allowing too much leeway for repeat offenders.
This program is being touted as a money saver as it is supposed to clear out the jail and save police officers’ time in making arrests. However, I am not certain that this program will actually save time and resources, because police officers will still have to track down those who do not appear in court for their citations. In fact, it was reported by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office that during their cite-and-release trial period, 60 percent of those cited did not appear for their day in court. How will we track the actual costs to our citizens and businesses to determine if taxpayer money is really being saved and police officer time on patrol is increased?
I know we can’t arrest away the problem, but this new approach isn’t as compassionate as it seems. Lax law enforcement guidelines do not better communities or protect individuals. If we aren’t careful, we may very well find ourselves in a precarious situation. Crimes against people and businesses should remain out of the cite-and-release program, and we should not allow criminal trespass to become the norm. Let’s work together to keep San Antonio safe and provide a civil place for us to live and do business.