Roseburg suffers from undesirables behaving badly downtown, no doubt. But city leaders should think carefully before resorting to a safety zone.
The idea of banishing offenders from downtown springs from the legitimate frustration of merchants, who are harmed by brutes scaring employees and shoppers.
Business owners who have talked about the policy say they want to keep out the thieves, drug dealers and thugs. They prefer the term “safety zone,” but an exclusion zone is more to the point. Such zones have been designated in other cities, including Eugene, to keep the same bad actors from repeatedly disturbing the peace and interfering with commerce. Once banned, scoundrels who return to forbidden blocks risk being fined or even jailed for trespassing.
A downtown exclusion zone employs a tactic used elsewhere. The city already excludes scofflaws from returning to parks. Malls and big-box retailers expel shoplifters from coming back onto their property.
But what works on private property and within the well-defined boundary of a public park may not apply to downtown.
The streets and sidewalks and government buildings are public property. Banning someone from a public place is far more serious than banishing someone from Walmart.
Also, the legitimate reasons, even for the criminal element, for being downtown are more diverse than going to a park. Depriving someone of the right to venture downtown is more consequential than barring him from a park.
The City Council would need to build strong public support before imposing such a strict policy. Residents have an attachment to downtown that they don’t have for strip malls. Some residents will view an exclusion zone as a heavy-handed way to shoo away the homeless and the hapless. Others would see the zone as more rules, more regulations, more government.
The vice president of the Downtown Roseburg Association, Gary Leif, told News-Review reporter Carisa Cegavske that he didn’t want to drive out litterers and loiterers. He said he wants to reserve expulsion for more serious offenders, those who introduce drugs and thievery to the area. Enforcing a ban, however, would be a messy affair, requiring police to judge what behavior merits expulsion.
Enforcing an exclusion zone also would add another duty for officers, who already are enforcing laws against illegal camping, littering, urinating in public and drinking in public. Arresting people whose mere presence downtown constitutes a crime would be another job to do, maybe a time-consuming one. Resources are limited and priorities must be set.
Finally, a safety zone could have the unintended consequence of damaging Roseburg’s image.
If Roseburg banishes offenders from downtown, it will be statewide news. Justifying the policy will require painting a pretty bleak picture of the city. This is what people will read about. Attractive businesses, and there are many, will be pushed into the background when people think of downtown Roseburg.
Yes, the city should have a low tolerance for miscreants. But it should resist having no tolerance.