Oxnard’s Assistant Police Chief Benites, On Homelessness and Vagrancy (Part Two)

Jason Benites discusses community concerns

By Lori Denman-Underhill

Citizens Journal interviewed Oxnard’s Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites last week. This two-part story features an interview with Benites about homelessness and vagrancy in his city.

The person who oversees operations and officers of the homeless and vagrancy capacity is Benites. Top concerns for some of the local community include how the homeless situation in Oxnard is and is vagrancy an issue?

In the following Q&A (part two), Benites and Citizens Journal discussed the homeless and homeless vagrancy issues in Oxnard.

CJ: What are your ideas of solutions to the homeless and vagrancy issues?

Benites: This is a very large, societal problem.  In order to effectively the homeless problem, there must be a comprehensive strategy and teamwork. Stakeholders must be at the table with this issue. There has to be funding to support an ongoing effort. On top of that, there has to be political will to make it happen. In my opinion, these are all key ingredients that are necessary to make progress – and if one ingredient is missing, it hampers the effort.

CJ: So there must be city, regional and state support?

Benites: Yes, exactly. For example, we notice that a lot of homeless we come across have mental health issues. Behavioral health services are essential. There has to be resources to deal with drug and alcohol addiction. There has to be a shelter component. We need to have laws and ordinances in place that can be enforced when necessary.   There are so many different components to this. The facility has to be professional and well-run, and services have to be available right there. Like I mentioned, the hurdles to get in have to be low, and the level of understanding and engagement has to be high.

CJ: Are there any personal stories you want to share, regarding the subject of homelessness?

Benites: I can tell you from some recent personal observations. I have been trying to work with a homeless individual that I have seen on the streets for the past year or more.  I’ve never seen him panhandle, and have never seen him under the influence.  After speaking to him over time, he told me that he didn’t want to live like this, and wanted help.  Recently he has been improving his situation, one small step at a time.  But I’ve noticed that every little thing can be challenge – a challenge for the individual, as well as a challenge to those trying to help. This includes routine things – remembering appointments, basic transportation, getting across town to a service appointment, or going to court.  The hazards of unsheltered life always loom overhead – it’s easy to become a victim out there, and easier to lose your vital possessions.  Government agencies and bureaucracies can also be confusing or even intimidating to many people – just think of how that can be for someone that suffers from a cognitive disability.  A homeless person can become easily overwhelmed, then regress if not carefully monitored.

CJ: What would help?

Benites: If a homeless person has access to services that are right in front of them, I think they are more inclined to use them, in order to get out of their situation. Some need close supervision and oversight.  And I am talking about those people who will accept services and are trying to improve their situation.

CJ: What do you think City Council should be doing?

Benites: They are looking at establishing a year-round homeless shelter and that is a step in the right direction. But there has to be an overall comprehensive strategy. It’s relatively complicated because there are a lot of key ingredients, like I mentioned earlier.  Funding is always a challenge.

CJ: Once they establish the year-round shelter, the people who need and really want the help will go in there.Then you will be able to see the many homeless vagrants who are repeatedly causing crimes and refusing services. They are the problem.

Benites: Fair to say. When you have the service-resistant vagrants who are committing crimes and disturbing the peace – that is when we step in. Ideally, that is where PD should be focusing its attention.

CJ: What does Oxnard PD need, in order to pull that off and create change?

Benites: If we are putting criminal cases or city ordinance cases together, we need to be able to have a resource that can marshal those cases together and use that as an incentive to get that person into a program that can help them.

For example, we need to be able to tailor a prescription for each individual. We may find that a person who is committing a number of public offenses may have a root issue, whether it’s a mental health issue, substance abuse issue, a cognitive issue, or a combination of the above.  We need to provide that person with an incentive to get into treatment that can help address the issue.

We like what Ventura has and is doing. We would like to develop a Community Intervention Court and have attorney resources that can coordinate the processing of municipal violations. You mentioned the Chronic Offenders Program in Ventura. I’d like to see something in place that can issue stay away orders to chronic offenders who will not accept treatment or services.  For example, if a vagrant persists with multiple offenses in a park, they should be banned from that park.  I would love to have a program where we could leverage those criminal charges or those city code violations when they are fractions or misdemeanors and actually use that as encouragement to get someone into a program.

What I also think would be more effective is for officers to be able to go to the homeless populations and know what the issues are with the people we contact. This is partly why we have our Homeless Liasion Officers.  We can’t look at the homeless and vagrants and see them as all the same.  Everybody has a story, what got them to where they are, and we need to know what they will or won’t respond to.

CJ: Like your Homeless Liaison Officers?

Benites: Yes, they know our homeless population, and are better equipped to know what triggers that person, or what they will respond to – whether that be enforcement, or placing that person in the car and driving them to get help.

CJ: Maybe you can tell me about this situation. While I was interviewing Baysinger, he received a call on a homeless vagrant committing a crime against a business. Apparently he committed the crime, then overdosed, then he was taken to a hospital for treatment and left there. This was because the officer had to go back out to other calls? In that situation, it would have helped to have another officer? What happened to the person committing the crime?

Benites: I know what incident you are talking about. That was an interesting one because that had multiple dimensions. The person committed a crime, then overdosed, and went to the hospital. This all happened within a few hours.  When we have to deal with a person with a mental health issue or medical issue, you are right. We can’t post an officer with that person for several hours on end. Unfortunately, incidents like this are a huge time drain on officers.

 CJ: What would be the answer to fixing that problem?

Benites: I would say in general that is a treatment resource issue. Resources can impact placement.  Broadly speaking, our “system” needs to do a better job in finding care that can treat beyond the immediate, emergency need.  When I speak of placement, that can range from a variety of things: medical treatment, mental health treatment such as adjusting medication, or even commitment to a facility that can provide longer-term care. And, in cases of crime, custody.

Our officers complain about there being “revolving door” systems. For example, a person that threatens to hurt themselves or others can be involuntarily placed on a “5150 hold”, which can be for up to 72 hours.  Officers complain that they are frustrated when after sitting with them for an extended period of time, they later find out that they are released after a few hours.  I have an example from yesterday. There was a 21-year-old male, whose mother took him to a hospital for a mental evaluation. While he was there, he assaulted the staff. He was arrested, booked into jail yesterday, and was released this morning. This morning he approached two of our department’s civilian employees, exposed himself, and nearly assaulted them. He was arrested again. So you can see the amount of resources that were put into that situation, without a seeming result.

It is very challenging. We find that those who commit crimes, we find that they are right back out in the community in a short period of time, reoffending. There is a lot that causes this. Legislation has decriminalized many offenses, such as with narcotics. Some new laws have given law enforcers less latitude and less leverage with those persons who are out there committing crimes. It is very frustrating for law enforcement.

CJ: What would have to happen in order to give more jail time to these offenders?

Benites: Jail and prison overcrowding prompted a lot of this. In a nutshell, the prisons became overcrowded, and were mandated to reduce their populations.  By doing so, prison inmates were allocated into California’s county jails, which in turn displaced the “lower level offenders” from county jails – back out into our communities.  Many of these “non violent” offenders are drug offenders who get back into their habits, and support them by committing crimes. The majority of these crimes are property crimes, and when they are eventually caught, the penalties don’t appear to be effective.  They seemingly don’t do much custody time, and they can stack up several offenses before something really happens. For that, the workload increases for law enforcement.

I would offer that if custody is not an option, more effective mandatory drug rehabilitation is needed.  It seems to me that so many offenders have drug habits, and our officers come across so many people each day whose lives have been wrecked by drugs.  Many become homeless or vagrant.

CJ: Oxnard is getting part of that grant that will team up a mental health professional with a police officer?

Benites: Yes, it is a triage grant that will be available in July. I am looking forward its arrival. It’s a grant for Ventura County Behavioral Health and they reached out to different cities including Ventura and Oxnard Sheriffs Departments. It provides one full-time mental health professional that can work as a team with each law enforcement agency. Our Crisis Intervention Officer would be with the mental health professional, working 40 hours a week. Their job is to identify those mental health consumers or clients who who are at risk, to see if they can do some sort of intervention before they relapse.

 CJ: Has this program benefited others?

Benites: Other cities have had great successes with this type of model. Colorado Springs, for example, has done it and they have stated that in the course of one year, they reduced their involuntary mental health commitments by 85 percent. They actually have two teams out there that do the same function. And I believe that the mental health person there has the abllity to dispense medication.

CJ: Yes, that sounds very important. For the person with mental health issue to be given their medication on a consistent basis.

Benites: From what I hear, many of these people’s medication gets disrupted and that then triggers the problems. So we need to get them back on track and into a better place.

CJ: I also hear that some homeless people or those who have no where to go, get released from the mental health facility without a continuation of their medication.

Benites: Right. And with the grant partnership with the officer and professional, I see them checking up on the mental health consumers, to make sure these people are on top of their medications and doing what they need to do. Once we do that, hopefully we can limit or litigate the opportunity for them to have a relapse.

CJ: Is it City Council that would get you guys more officers to handle this issue and all the others?

Benites: Yes. And I am sure they would if given the chance. The principle challenge, and particularly in Oxnard, is money. There needs to be enough revenue coming into the city that can create the opportunity of hiring more personnel and doing this. I’d love it if we had enough money to hire a deputy city attorney who could solely focus on a Community Intervention Court. I would love to have at least two to four more Homeless Liason Officers.

It’s all about the city’s budget. If you have been following Oxnard’s budget. We are going to have a balanced budget this year, but we had to make a reduction this year by about $7 million. The City Council presentationfrom last Tuesday covered that. It’s a challenge. You can deploy those resources that your city can afford. The city needs to find some more revenue sources in order to expand their ability to address these growing issues.

Part One of this story: Oxnard’s Assistant Police Chief Benites, On Homelessness and Vagrancy 

Lori Denman-Underhill has been a professional journalist since 1996. She has worked as associate editor for the Los Angeles Daily News TODAY Magazines and has freelanced for LA Weekly, Surfline.com and more. She is now the Ventura reporter for Citizens Journal.

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William Hicks
William Hicks
3 years ago

I’ll admit, I’ve only read the first two questions but I see some concerns with answers/responses.

1) Who are going to be the “stakeholders,” and will there be leadership separate from city government?

2) With a mix of city, regional and state “support” who takes the lead on the reigns of this beast? Someone, or some entity has to take leadership or this will be no different than the clumsy slow way that federal government slowly works.

William Hicks
William Hicks
3 years ago
Reply to  William Hicks

I’m a big goals and objectives kind of manager. This is obviously a complex issue and I don’t want to oversimplify anything, but there has to be some goals set.

Because this is complex, those goals have to be fluid enough to change as the circumstances change.