Police and downtown business owners hope a shocking assault on a downtown San Luis Obispo store employee Thursday will spark more conversation about aggressive street panhandlers and others who arrive from outside the area and disturb shoppers and retailers.
The issue arose after an Arizona man who had been in town for only about 24 hours randomly punched a clerk and then allegedly caused a disruption at a second San Luis Obispo business within hours of being released from jail.
At around noon Thursday, Justin Edmund Pard, 20, of Gilbert, Ariz., was arrested on suspicion of sucker punching a woman working at the Flip Flop Shop in the 800 block of Higuera Street.
Pard was released from San Luis Obispo County Jail at 6:38 p.m. Thursday with a notice to appear in court, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
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Although he was originally held on $9,800 bail, the two misdemeanor charges Pard faced — assault and concealing a weapon — required that he be cited and released, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla said.
Less than three hours later, at about 9:30 p.m., an employee at BlackHorse Espresso on Foothill Boulevard reported a man lingering inside the shop acting strange and making customers feel uncomfortable. The man, whom the employee suspected of being the suspect from earlier in the day, was gone by the time officers arrived.
Officers said they found Pard at about 11:50 p.m. sleeping behind a church in the 600 block of Foothill.
Pard was then arrested on suspicion of trespassing and illegal lodging and booked again into County Jail in lieu of $2,000 bail.
San Luis Obispo police Capt. Chris Staley said this time Pard will be held in custody pending a mental health evaluation and until he is either able to post bail or is arraigned in court.
Staley said officers are also working with the District Attorney’s Office to attempt a bail increase due to the circumstances surrounding the assault.
Staley said that at the time of Pard’s booking, officers did not have much information about him or the public safety risk he allegedly presented. He said investigators did not obtain the surveillance video until late afternoon and then began looking into Pard’s criminal history.
Pard has no criminal history in San Luis Obispo County but is on probation in Arizona, Staley said.
By the time investigators reached Pard’s probation department, he had already been released from jail. Police have not released Pard’s criminal history in that state.
“The puzzle started coming together after he was released,” Staley said. “In hindsight we might have been able to do more to keep him in custody, but we could only go with the information we had at the time.”
When a suspect is booked into jail, Cipolla said, the arresting officer has an option of filling out a form with a list of special criteria, such as showing suicidal tendencies or presenting a clear danger to the public, which could keep the suspect in custody until examined by the proper authorities.
In an email to the City Council on Thursday, Police Chief Steve Gesell said officers attempted to obtain a restraining order against Pard to prohibit contact with the assaulted employee, but a court commission denied the request on the grounds that there was no relationship between the two.
In his email, Gesell told the council that investigators believe Pard had originally intended to do more harm to the employee — he was found with a 10-inch kitchen knife in his sweater pocket — but settled for punching her.
Gesell wrote that the entire incident underscored mental health issues prevalent in San Luis Obispo, although officials have not said that Pard suffers from mental illness or that he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In a follow-up email to The Tribune, Gesell said the video will help residents grasp “the gravity of the culture that continues to draw people with this level of dysfunction to (San Luis Obispo), mental health issues, justice system limitations/shortcomings and the real public safety concern that escapes the grasp of many.”
Police officials and Downtown Association President Dominic Tartaglia said Friday they hope it will reignite a dialogue about aggressive downtown panhandlers, mental health treatment and changing San Luis Obispo into less of a destination for homeless people with drug and alcohol addiction issues who have no intention of seeking stability.
Staley said that since the department began tracking incidents involving people they deem “transient,” about one-third of all calls for service involve a person with no address.
Tartaglia said the association will be gathering a group of stakeholders to brainstorm public education strategies, including a possible pamphlet for downtown shoppers with tips on how to react when confronted by aggressive and possibly dangerous individuals.
“If anything good can come of this, it’s that it put these issues back in the forefront of people’s minds,” Tartaglia said.
However, Tartaglia said he’s in constant communication with business owners and though loitering and panhandling remain a constant aggravation, he thinks the recent assault was an isolated incident.
“This was a single incident, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware, but I don’t think this is an epidemic,” he said.
Tartaglia also said the Police Department’s Community Action Team, a two-officer unit that handles chronic repeat offenders, has done a good job in policing the downtown area.
As of Friday afternoon, Pard remained in County Jail.