Protecting public urination at Public Safety

I was so frustrated last weekend, reading all the reports for this week’s Committee meetings. Between the Equal Access Report (PDF), and the awful, awful retail enhancement (PDF) and economic development (PDF) stuff that I complained about on Wednesday, it was just some particularly painful homework. The highlight of all my reading was a line in a report about some municipal code amendments (PDF) for the Public Safety Committee explaining why we should add a prohibition against urinating and defecating in public:

Persons urinating and defecating in public places and/or places open to public view is offensive, against common decency, adversly impacts the quality of life in neighborhoods and creates a nuisance and public health hazard.

So efficiently stated. And so true. After wading through hundreds of pages of truly mindless bureaucratese, the simplicity of this well-reasoned assertion made me smile.

Perhaps you’re wondering why the City would be deciding just now to ban public urination. So, last summer, the Council approved a Special Prosecution Team (PDF) for the City Attorney’s office designed to combat quality of life offenses. The office is partnering with the District Attorney to allow the three members of the team to prosecute offenses that the DA’s office doesn’t have the resources to deal with, ideally imposing community service type punishments.

So as part of this effort, the office reviewed sections of the Municipal Code addressing quality of life issues, and brought several amendments to Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee, repealing sections duplicative of State law, amending sections to make prosecution more flexible, and adding sections that were missing. OPD’s Lieutenant Green introduced the item to the Committee by giving some background about the intent behind it:

No matter where you live in Oakland, the biggest thing that everybody faces is quality of life issues. And mostly the quality of life issues revolve around street corner drug dealing and prostitution. This set of ordinances and modifications of ordinances I think is really going to be helpful to give the community some sense of control of their neighborhoods. Cause I think people really feel frustrated with really feeling incapable of taking control of their neighborhoods, partly because, in the prior system, with the DA being responsible for charging mostly misdemeanor violations of these various laws, nobody was getting charged for anything. And then the police really are not pushing things the same way. With this special prosecution program, and the flexibility with things being prosecuted as misdemeanors and infractions, I think we’re going to be able to get a lot more leverage.

So then you had the public speakers, one attorney from the East Bay Community Law Center, and one representative from the Homeless Action Center. They complained that although the proposal was presented as being aimed at addressing drug dealing and prostitution, the ordinances did not deal specifically with that problem:

You are being asked to approve the continuing presence in the Oakland Municipal Code of some ordinance that are, we believe, unconstitutional under more recent court decisions. And what we are proposing to you, and strongly urge, that rather than passing these ordinance onto Council now, you make a decision not to do it, you send them back for further consideration and input, because I think the kind of issues we’re raising in this letter and other issues which we would like to raise need to be addressed. There’s no point in passing an ordinance that is unconstitutional. It won’t help anybody, it won’t deal with drug dealing, it won’t deal with prostitution, it just is a waste of time.

Once the public comment was over, Pat Kernighan asked for clarification of what they were being asked to do, because in her reading of the item, the laws being specifically objected to by the speakers as unconstitutional were not new laws, but already on the books. The response was that this was correct:

The only action that would be affected by this legislation is to give discretion to lower the charge, basically. Make it more lenient. So to the extent that the speakers have challenged the vailidity of those ordinances, it’s not an action item today. They already exist as misdemeanors, and the only action today is to reduce them at the discretion of the prosecutor.

Kernighan said that while she did not want to criminalize the condition of being homeless, she was sympathetic to the goals of the program, and asked for some clarifications on how the options would be utilized by the police and the prosecutors. Lt. Green responded that there would be significant training for the police, then:

There’s so much crime…We don’t really have any interest in trying in trying to scoop up extra people than we need to. We have our hands full with the aggressive panhandlers and people who are constituting a danger.

He then added that he would welcome having the homeless advocacy community participate in training for the police.

Staff from the City Attorney’s office then reiterated that the Committee was not being asked to adopt ordinances the homeless advocates were objecting to as unconstitutional, but rather to allow an option of a reduced charge for existing ordinances, and emphasized the broad community support for the program. Jean Quan asked a bunch of clarifying questions, in response to which we learned, again, that adopting the item in question would not introduce a new ordinance, nor would it necessarily change the level of citation for violating the ordinance, but would simply give the prosecutors discretion to charge these crimes either as a misdemeanor (which they are currently) or now as an infraction, as they deem appropriate.

Up to this point, the discussion was fine. Sure, we heard the same thing over and over again, and sometimes after a long day, that can get pretty tiring. But in general, I don’t mind. I much prefer that the Council be extremely clear on what they’re voting on than they just push things through in a hurry.

Then, the whole thing just collapsed. Jean Quan, totally randomly, started talking about the County’s alcohol detention center. She’s bothered that the Oakland police don’t take more people there, and doesn’t see how approving this would do anything to get more Oakland residents into the center. You know, I don’t see how the Committee approving the ordinance is going to do anything to make the sidewalks downtown less treacherous to my heels, but I didn’t feel the need to march down to City Hall and protest it because of that.

She received a very polite response explaining that first, someone passed out in the street from alcohol needs to go to a hospital, not a detention center, and that two, the center is for people who want to go there willingly for treatment, and it’s not something you can force people to do.

Jean Quan then asked if the proposal had been presented to Project Reconnect, and got yet another response from the attorney’s office explaining that the proposal was not about homelessness at all. Quan responded that in order for the misdemeanor prosecutions to be successful, we need cooperation of homeless advocacy organizations to create restorative justice programs for them. She suggested delaying the item for a month, and said they should, in the meantime, meet with a coalition of homeless advocates to give their input about how to craft a restorative justice program for homeless people who can’t pay their tickets.

The representative then responded that while she’d be happy to do that, since the type of program Quan was describing is completely outside the scope of responsibility or authority of the City Attorney’s office, they’d need to involve Health and Human Services. Quan seemed to think that was just peachy, and suggested that while they’re at it, they get the County involved. Oh, and also see what the County can do about getting more use out of the alcohol detention center.

Nancy Nadel complained that the laws already on the books could be targeted against homeless people, then started talking about the alcohol detention center and how we need to be using it more, initiating a discussion about the constitutionality of forcing unwilling people into the center. Then she gave a little lecture about restorative justice and how the City doesn’t fund homeless programs enough.

Jean Quan then suggested that they move forward with the loitering and drug solicitation parts of the proposal, since the homeless advocates weren’t upset by those, and keep the rest to come back to a meeting at the end of January.

You know, this is exactly what I’ve been complaining about this week. The City Attorney’s office wanted to make some minor changes to the municipal code that would improve the special prosecution team’s ability to address quality of life offenses. It was really, really simple. So what do Jean Quan and Nancy Nadel do? Turn it into the whole circus of completely unrelated issues.

Certainly, it may be true that we should talk to the County about getting more use from the alcohol detention center, and perhaps we should work with the homeless advocacy community to create more restorative justice programs for homeless people. But neither of those things had anything whatsoever to do with the item at hand, and if Quan and Nadel wanted to address them, the appropriate action would be to go to Rules Committee and agendize a discussion of those issues. Not delay something sort of tangentially related for over a month and get other departments and government agencies involved.

Perhaps it would be wise to review existing ordinances for constitutionality. But delaying passage of this item does nothing to address that either. Because, as was explained repeatedly at the meeting, the ordinance that was being objected to is already on the books. Failing to amend it to allow for a lesser charge does not make it go away.

Every last thing the Council passes does not have to be all things to all people. And the way some Councilmembers act like it does…well, that’s exactly why nothing ever gets done in Oakland. Why can’t we just pass something very simple that does one thing, then move on and work on doing the next thing on it’s own, and then, when we finish that, the next thing? It just isn’t that complicated!

An obviously exceedingly frustrated Larry Reid offered this:

We supported this program, and talked about giving them tools to go out and deal with things that they – the small things that are not being taken care of, the small things that improve the quality of life for the people in this city.

And certainly, you know, I’m not anti-homeless. But let me give you an example. I was going to a restaurant down on Broadway, and a homeless person approached me. And ultimately, you know, he got very, very belligerent, went to the extent of pulling a knife. And he got really nasty, to the point that I was going to forget that I was a Councilmember and revert back to the time where I was a much younger person, and when I was in the Marine Corps and just deal with the issue that way.

But it’s those kind of issues that exist in this city. And I’ll give you an example. You got on 98th and International. You know, I’m on my way home from church, there’s a guy that pulls his pants down and shows his behind. I mean, you know, that’s not what I want people that’s visiting my home and see and think that’s what’s acceptable to the City of Oakland. I just think we make things absolutely so much more difficult than they actually have to be, and it is frustrating. And I’ll just leave it at that.

Then Nancy Nadel started talking about how she wants a fiscal analysis and explanation of how they can create a city run community service program like she wanted, but couldn’t do for parking tickets. Again, completely irrelevant and totally outside the scope of the power or interest of the City Attorney’s office. Infuriating!

You know, I know I mentioned in a post last week that I’ve largely lost interest in complaining about the press on this blog. But I cannot let today’s Trib story on this item pass without comment. First, I don’t think it gave a very clear picture of what the issues at hand were or what happened at the meeting. That’s to be expected. But the line “Committee Chairman Larry Reid (Elmhurst-East Oakland) said the technical back-and-forth and legal jargon gave him a headache” is completely outrageous. One, this makes Larry Reid sound like an idiot who couldn’t understand the discussion enough to follow it. Second, that is completely not the context of what he said about the headache – he was pointing out how frustrated he was that the Committee wouldn’t just support the program they had all approved at Council and were tying it up with unrelated issues. I really felt the way that was presented was inappropriate. Also, when a Councilmember gives two examples of why something is important, one involving seeing someone’s “behind” and another involving being threatened with a knife by a solicitor on Broadway, one of them is obviously better to use in the newspaper. And it is not the one in the story.

21 thoughts on “Protecting public urination at Public Safety

  1. Chris

    “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good.” -Voltaire

    These city council members don’t seem to understand that they can’t solve every problem all once. And in meantime, they solve none.

    I live in Rockridge and have (half) jokingly proposed a succession from Oakland to form the city of “Piedmontclairidge” consisting of Piedmont, Montclair, and Rockridge.

  2. justin

    For the record, I live in Rockridge and am not interested in seceding from Oakland.

    I’m also not interested in seeing people urinate and defecate in public.

    Need these two interests be mutually exclusive?

  3. VivekB

    Another Rockridgean here, and listening to the City Council spin fills me with the urge to defecate.

    My perspective is that secession from Oakland isn’t enough. What I want to do is kick out all the earthy-crunch granola folks who believe in hugging criminals instead of enforcement of laws. The remaining folks can join the town of Otisville. Then again, around here I suspect i’d be one of very few people living in Otisville.

    Unless I can do that, secession and being surrounded by 99% NIMBY-granola idiots is the 5th layer of hell. Can you imagine *those* council meetings?

  4. Max Allstadt

    Well, the next time I’m in District 4 and I have to go, I guess I know who’s lawn to use.

    We need this ordinance now more than ever. Has anybody besides me noticed an aggressive streak in panhandlers recently? I’ve had to kick them out of Mama Buzz, and two nights ago some jerk off followed my girlfriend to her car trying to intimidate money out of her after she already gave him a buck. I was on the phone with her at the time and I was about to sprint three blocks ’cause it was really sounding scary.

    I was never in the marines, but frankly I think Reid should have gone with his instinct on that one. You cede your right to physical respect when you ignore someone else’s.

  5. MIke Spencer

    I have not been to any of these meetings but it sounds, via this report, like Larry Reid is at least grounded in some sort of reality. Let police do their jobs, enforce the laws. Let them use their discretion and common sense; they deal with the public every day and are the experts, not Jean Quan/Nancy Nadel.

  6. blackie

    I go to councilmeetings fairly often & am always impressed with what a self serving bitch Jean Quan is, & what a moronic twat Nancy Nadel is. Those two bitches & Desley Brooks all three need to go.

  7. Born in Oakland

    I am so grateful that the very rational Pat Kernighan is my councilperson. Pat cannot cure my “headache” but at least I don’t regret wasting my valuable vote for her every Tuesday.

  8. Patrick

    Although he is not my councilperson, I am impressed by what Larry Reid has often tried to convey. If only he could articulate his thoughts a little better…

  9. blackie

    Larry Reid has aged quite alot since he got electef councilmember to the Killing Fields. Heis a good man witht the weight of the world on his shoulders. Pat K. & he both have a great deal of good sense.

  10. Max Allstadt

    I know I’m sort of dissing myself here, but…

    you know how you can tell Reid and Kernighan are among the best on the council? They talk the least! Short, succinct comments. Sometimes Reid just sits through an entire item, and simply says yes or no at the end. Brooks is usually pretty economical with her words too.

    As a bloviator myself, I sincerely appreciate their ability to not bloviate like some of their colleagues.

    Oh, and while we’re talking about public urination, I invite you all to take a whiff around the benches on City Hall Plaza. Fucking embarrassing.

  11. Patrick


    Can you come up with some sort of artsy-visual plan to highlight public urination in Oakland? Some sort of Christo-esque wrapping of the benches (and other areas of the city inundated with urine) in yellow toilet paper or something? I’m not kidding. Something must be done to highlight our frustration with our do-nothing leaders.

    Sorry, Nav, if this increases negative perceptions about Oakland, I’m for it as long as it leads to increased public awareness and forcing our city’s leaders to piss or get off the pot.

  12. Ralph

    I am afirm believer that those who would use private property as their personal toilet should be dealt with swift and complete justice. Just the other night, some jackass opted to use the backside of Ozumo as his local toilet. I believe in situations such as the one just described the loss of the male member is an appropriate treatment. Not sure what to do with the females among us who would act in such a manner but really how many females urinate in public. And the adults who allow either their kidlets or kidlets in their care to urinate in public should lose penii and ovaries.

  13. Patrick

    To play devil’s advocate, where DO we expect the homeless to pee? During the recent cold wave, the warming shelters opened by the city were virtually empty. So even if, somehow, we provided bathroom facilities, it is doubtful they would be utilized. Were Quan and Nadel right? Is making the prosecution of public urination and other quality of life crimes a direct attack on the homeless?

    If we ran with the amendments presented to the City Council what then? Community Service punishment followed by – what? A return to the streets and more public urination and defecation?

    It is entirely possible that unless you rid the city of the homeless, there will always be public evacuation of bodily waste. How do you legislate against one and not the other?

  14. Max Allstadt

    One thing I remember fondly about living abroad in semi-socialist countries: public toilets everywhere. You can walk across Tokyo from end to end and never have to worry about finding a place to take a leak. Water fountains everywhere too.

    American cities for whatever reason either can’t or won’t maintain decent facilities. My guess is that in trying to prevent homeless folks from congregating around a public bathroom, we’ve just made everywhere the bathroom.

    Ralph, are you channeling TonyWKoo?

  15. Mike Spencer

    A sad day in Oakland: The Need for a Public Service Announcement about public urination. Perhaps Ignacio can use one of his contacts to get the City a good billboard rate. “Hi, I’m Ron Dellums. You can do a lot of things in Oakland, but peeing in public isn’t one of them…..”

  16. Patrick

    Yeah, Paris has public toilets everywhere and of course Holland has the canals…I realize you’re talking about Asia, but I think that their societal norm regarding cleanliness is completely different from ours. They have toilets that wash your business and dry it; we have a Burger King in our downtown that is allowed to close their bathroom and still operate. Facile, I realize, but it is illustrative of the difference.

    American cities won’t maintain the facilities due to expense and lack of perceived value. Why not build them (via Bathrooms for Humanity) and make the maintenance of them a Quality of Life violation punishment? Alas, can you imagine the difficulty of getting a neighborhood to agree to a public restroom? Certainly such a thing can only lead to hordes of homeless people, child prostitution and graffiti.

    Hilarious re: TonyWKoo – I’ve been wondering what happened to him – I thought so too, at first, but there was no reference to Singapore.

  17. We Fight Blight

    Jeez–like this is really rocket science. Can we not put JC Decaux toilets in key locations throughout Oakland. They are reasonably attractive and, theoretically, self-cleaning. The ads on the restrooms help offset the installation and maintenance costs. Yes, the homeless would have to pay a nominal user fee just like everyone else. Perhaps we could dispense tokens to the homeless to use the toilets if it becomes a big issue. Why does everything in Oakland and Berkeley have to be so damn difficult!!

  18. Ralph

    max, not sure i get the tony w koo reference. but i am a huge fan of hammurabi yet have trouble with nelson rockefeller

  19. Chuck

    “Yes, the homeless would have to pay a nominal user fee just like everyone else. Perhaps we could dispense tokens to the homeless to use the toilets if it becomes a big issue.”

    Hell, practically speaking, what are YOU gonna do as a proud citizen of Oakland, if someone comes up to you and asks for a quarter to use the pay-john? I dunno about you but I will stop and search my bag if need be.