Thursday, February 20, 2014

Scumbag Tempe creates free public transit, criminalizes using it

Let's hearken back to 2007, shall we? Tempe was dreaming big.  Centerpoint Towers, now reborn as W6 after temporarily pooping out mid-development, was still in progress.  The twin towers steadily rose to unprecedented heights, along with the city's prospects, it was hoped.

So can this can be used arbitrarily? Yes.

And Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman was championing the transformation of the city's public transit system to reflect its New Urbanist vision -- a city of easy transport and just as easy-to-get-to entertainment and work. Easy money, you might call it. The city envisioned an expansion of the existing free transit system, the Flash Forward and Back, into a neighborhood system. Small free buses would snake through the areas surrounding the university, delivering students and shoppers to various city destinations.
Quoted in an official city press release at the time, Mayor Hallman described the purpose of the free Orbit system in broad, inclusive terms.  Not only was the system meant to be a simple, green means of getting to work, it was also supposed to serve the old and disabled.  "Many residents — young, old, disabled or those simply desiring to reduce vehicle emissions — are in need of alternative transportation," he said.

So it might be surprising to know that a few weeks ago Tempe essentially made taking the city's neighborhood buses a crime for elderly and disabled people.  And probably poor people, too. And probably just about anybody that doesn't fit into the city's yuppie vision for the future. And not only that, the may have turned taking the bus into a potential Fourth Amendment nightmare.

On January 24, 2014, the city council passed a troubling expansion of the city's sidewalk sitting ordinance into the surrounding neighborhoods, effectively criminalizing sitting on the ground while waiting for the free bus. Given that the system utilizes a “flag” stop arrangement, meaning that residents and visitors can essentially wait for and wave down the bus anywhere along the circuitous route where it is reasonably safe for the bus to pick them up, this change in the law represents a dangerous expansion of the ability of police to harass and criminalize people using the system, or just hanging out in front of their own homes minding their own business.

The only no vote came from Councilman Kolby Granville, who questioned the broad language and potential arbitrary enforcement of the ordinance.

Before the vote, Granville questioned legal counsel, asking, "So if I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of my own house, conceivably, could I be violating this rule?" To which counsel responded in the affirmative.  Cops would use their discretion, came the reassuring response.  And when it comes to the police, we know what that means: it will be open season on the poor, people of color and mentally ill and other perceived undesirables.

The passage of the original Tempe sidewalk sitting ban was controversial at the time.  Starting in 1999, community members engaged in a series of protests against the law, and then local ASU graduate student (now a professor at Prescott College) Randall Amster challenged it in court. In an unusual move, the 9th Circuit Court, based out of San Francisco, took up the case and heard the case in Tempe, in a public forum at ASU. Sadly, the court upheld the law. Ironically, it went into effect on Martin Luther King Day.

Down and Drought contacted several city officials for comments on the new ordinance, including Councilman Corey Woods. As the only African-American council member, we were curious if he would have any concerns about potential profiling that may result from the law. In his response to us via Twitter, Woods said the city had considered the effect of similar laws in Phoenix and Mesa, and that their "analysis didn't show profiling happening in those cities."

We requested that data and followed up with Woods via email, who then put us in contact with Bill Amato, police legal advisor to the city. Amato didn't include any data in his response but reiterated the claim that the city had run a "best practices analysis with other jurisdictions that had similar language," and found no reason to suspect increased "4th Amendment or racial profiling claims."

The term Fourth Amendment claims refers to cops using the pretext of police contact made via enforcement of the sidewalk sitting ordinance as cause for a search, which otherwise wouldn't happen.  This troubles Granville, who told us via email that while he's not a legal expert on the question, 'I do not know if violation of the city code is considered to be "an arrest" subject to a search, or if it is something different.  However, my concern is that it may be.'

But after those initial comments, things get a little tricky. In his response, Amato reminds us that racial profiling and police harassment are not "ordinance specific," meaning that a police force that generally profiles is just as capable of profiling with any law at its disposal. Neither Phoenix nor Mesa have stellar records in this regard.

Readers may recall in 2010 when police assaulted and handcuffed Phoenix City Councilman Michael Johnson as he was checking on a neighbor whose house was on fire. Indeed, we here at Down and Drought broke a story last year involving a racist tweet from a Phoenix police officer. In 2012 a community group accused PPD of racial profiling during traffic stops. And a statewide review of traffic stops by DPS in 2008 by the ACLU revealed widespread bias in police stops in Arizona. And of course, many Tempe residents remember the Sgt. Schoville affair. And just recently we saw allegations that Tempe police offered protection to a frat that threw a racist party. So there is certainly cause for concern.

Criminals up to no good in Tempe?

So essentially Amato's message to us is that we should just trust the police, despite ample cause for skepticism. However, it seems even the city is having some second thoughts. Amato tells us, 'As one final note, staff will be bringing this ordinance back to Council to add some additional language. The proposed language will add additional safeguards by requiring the conduct to “unreasonably impede the right of way or cause a safety risk”.'

So, if there's no reason for concern, why the need for additional language to prevent the abuses they claim won't happen in the first place? It certainly begs the question as to why the ordinance is needed at all. Is this a solution looking for a problem? Or is this push for increased policing related to other standardization measures in North Tempe, such as increased enforcement of noise ordinances and yard codes?

To us, it looks like a part of a broader attempt by the city to domesticate the valuable downtown area, to make it safe for development and high end condo owners, and to enclose all social life in Tempe in one of three places: in city sanctioned mega events and the bars of Mill Avenue (where they can be taxed and policed), or quietly and meekly inside residents' homes. Our guess is that's exactly what this is, and that's another big reason all residents should oppose it.

To the sidewalks!

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