A woman who shot a video showing San Luis Obispo police officers taking a 33-year-old homeless man to the ground before arresting him alleges police harassment.
The Police Department tells a different story, saying the action was necessary for the responding officers’ safety, and that the man had pieces of asphalt and a corkscrew in his pockets that could have been used as weapons.
The video is another example of the rising tension between the homeless and the city.
Police were called to McMillan Avenue about 5:30 p.m. Thursday by staff of the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter after Richard Kirenga became aggressive after being told he could not stay.
Kirenga, who has a history of mental illness, had been barred from services at the shelter because of his past behavior, which included yelling profanities and threatening staff.
Mental health workers in the county say Kirenga comes from a troubled past. He witnessed the murder and rape of family members in Africa. He now struggles with schizophrenia and slips in and out of reality, the health workers say.
Kirenga’s case is an example of the gap in available mental health services as county workers have struggled to help him over the past year with limited resources — and limited success.
Police Chief Steve Gesell said officers located Kirenga on Thursday and asked him to remove his hands from his pockets. Kirenga refused.
Those officers were aware that Kirenga has a history of hiding rocks in his pockets and had been arrested in the past for assaulting a police officer with one, Capt. Chris Staley said.
After police pushed Kirenga to the ground and handcuffed him, they found two pieces of asphalt and a corkscrew in his pocket, Gesell said.
The video shows multiple police officers gathered around Kirenga as they subdue him. It is hard to tell exactly what is occurring.
Kirenga has been charged with trespassing multiple times in San Luis Obispo and once for burglary in the past year.
In 2009, Kirenga was convicted of battery for hitting a police officer in Santa Barbara with a rock.
Chris Grace, who shot the video, has seen Kirenga on city streets in the past.
“He always walks on the streets with his hands in his pockets, talks to no one and doesn’t understand simple things,” Grace said. “You can ask him to stop or go away and he doesn’t understand. He just babbles on and on.”
Police officials say they have had past contact with Kirenga and that he can understand and follow directions.
Grace said she posted the video on YouTube because she felt Kirenga was unfairly targeted by police for being homeless.
Matt Strzepek, who is running for San Luis Obispo City Council, emailed news media a link to the YouTube video. His political platform includes the need for improved services to help the city’s homeless.
Strzepek, who is homeless himself, recently held a candlelit vigil on the front steps of City Hall to show support for people living in their vehicles and to protest a law forbidding them to sleep in their cars.
He also filed a claim against the San Luis Obispo Police Department for alleged harassment.
Staley said it is up to officers in the field to handle arrests. Sometimes it is easier to control a combative person once they are on the ground.
Kirenga was booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail on charges of trespassing, resisting arrest and for two outstanding warrants. His bail was set at $10,000, which was posted. He has been released.