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Public safety problem has many layers

Peter Goodman is a commentator based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Courtesy photo.
Peter Goodman is a commentator based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


This week’s Supreme Court argument, next Monday’s city work session, and a special state legislative session all focus on how we retain our values, treat the homeless folks fairly, and protect small businessfolk.

Half of us are a paycheck away from homelessness. Our modern world makes mental health problems epidemic; and our corporate capitalism helps create the homelessness.

I could be an unemployed carpenter pushing a shopping cart that contains all I own. I could be innocent of crimes, or guilty occasionally of trespassing or urinating where I shouldn’t. Maybe disease, war’s madness, or grief for my dead wife has addled my brain. Would you confiscate that shopping cart, stripping me of everything I can’t carry on my person?

I could be a small businessman whose parking lot out back is occupied nightly by a couple who sleep there, eat, shoot up, urinate, and defecate there, and leave garbage and needles. Each morning I arrive early to clean up their mess. After I politely suggested they find somewhere else, they threatened me, then started writing obscenities on my wall, and cutting pipes – at night, unseen. The police have many problems to deal with at each moment. Can you fairly ask me to experience all this so that you can feel our community is humane to the homeless?

Citizens enraged by vandalism or abuse aren’t always ready to hear about others’ constitutional rights or understand the economic and/or psychological reasons others aren’t homed. Citizens concerned about those constitutional and human rights, and housing homeless folks, don’t always admit the costs our law-abiding tolerance exacts on others who don’t live in some East Mesas mansion. We see many collisions between the needs and interests of basically decent people.

There are some very bad actors. One killed a policeman, for no discernible reason. Ran at him and stabbed him, when the officer approached him quietly and respectfully. Others threaten or curse other citizens, or inflict costly damage on homes and shops.

The Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the Grant’s Pass anti-camping ordinance: is evicting and imprisoning the homeless cruel and unusual when there’s nowhere else they can sleep?

Monday, the City will hammer out public safety ordinances. For both constitutional and humanitarian reasons, ordinances must balance carefully the need to minimize the harm some people are doing to others without persecuting innocent but impoverished folks.

This complex problem has many layers. Drugs, including Fentanyl, exacerbate it. But addicts are human, too. Punishing addiction rarely helps. We must try our best to treat them, but that can’t mean allowing them to commit repeated crimes of theft, burglary, or battery. Some say, cut off the supply! But that likely would just significantly interrupt the supply, significantly jacking up the drug’s price, and significantly increasing burglary and theft.

Mental incompetence is a factor. Since courts can’t fairly try someone too addled to assist the defense lawyer, and you can’t throw someone into a mental institution because s/he’s obviously addled, sometimes someone commits crimes with impunity. While bail rules that jail poor people but not rich people are unfair, constantly releasing people who’ll commit more crimes immediately isn’t fair to the community. Our legislature will grapple with that and related issues, starting July 18th, in a special session we thank the governor for calling. starting July 18th.

These are serious, subtle, challenging problems. Fortunately, many of our public officials recognize that. I think.

Peter Goodman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.