SLO Downtown Association wants city to hire more police officers

The Downtown Centre in downtown San Luis Obispo.
The Downtown Centre in downtown San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A growing concern about public safety has prompted the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association to petition the City Council to hire two police officers for daily patrols of the area.

The officers are needed to combat issues related to a growing number of transients panhandling and otherwise harassing people downtown, said Deborah Cash, executive director of the association.

The organization is circulating an online petition that will be forwarded to the City Council before its scheduled budget hearing Tuesday.

“We can’t fight this alone,” Cash said. “This is really a public safety issue.”

Police Chief Steve Gesell said it will take more than an increased uniformed presence downtown to deal with the problem behaviors.

“We cannot arrest our way out of a particular issue,” Gesell said. “It requires stakeholder involvement to change the culture.”

The Downtown Association has paid to have security guards in the area from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily since 2005 at an annual cost of $50,000.

In early March, one of those security guards was assaulted by a man on Marsh Street after asking him not to urinate on a bank wall.

“Panhandling is the lesser of problems — we don’t believe panhandling will ever completely go away,” Cash said. “It’s the problem behaviors ... it’s not any one group of people, but we do see a trend that a lot of the problems are transient behavior issues.”

Gesell said there is “no doubt” that a stronger police presence is needed downtown, but the challenge remains in building a program that will be the most effective.

“There is not a week that goes by without hearing some story of how a citizen doesn’t feel safe downtown,” Gesell said.

Two bicycle officers for the downtown would cost about $261,000 in salary and benefits the first year, plus $13,000 in one-time equipment costs.

“With figures like that, the public expects us to really assess and find the most cost-effective yet best solution for the situation,” Gesell said.

Cash, in an email to the council, said the Downtown Association understands that enforcement alone is not the solution, but that immediate help is needed.

In the next three months, Gesell plans to launch a two-officer Community Action Team that would focus solely on transient issues and work with mental health and social service providers to find long-term solutions.

However, that two-person team will focus on the entire city — not just the downtown.

There are three bicycle police officers designated to the downtown from Wednesday to Saturday focused mainly on nightlife issues.

There are no other police resources dedicated solely to the downtown, Gesell said.

“Our issues need immediate attention,” Cash said. “To see a uniformed police officer walking or biking downtown will give the perception that the city is aware of the problem and cares. It is a strong deterrence to the problems we are facing and the only way to send that message.”