“Over at the parking lot every morning, you can see Shane giving out tickets like they’re candy,” says Byron Benally, a volunteer at a kitchen at the St. Vincent de Paul Center, himself a resident of the nearby Road Home. Benally and others say Shane spends his morning waking up and citing residents who couldn’t get a room at the shelter and sleep by the breezeway near the Road Home men’s shelter entrance for disturbing the peace. Most other officers, Benally says, will rouse the sleepers and warn them to get moving or they’ll receive a ticket.
“Officer Shane will wake you up and give you a ticket,” Benally says. These wake-up calls are just one of the ways Shane’s policing has earned him a reputation on Rio Grande Street for being a hard-ass, at best, or, at worst, a cop who routinely harasses Salt Lake City’s homeless.
On Sept. 27, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker conducted “town hall” style meetings at two homeless shelters and a resource center on Rio Grande Street. At two locations, homeless citizens asked Becker what would be done about Shane. Becker said that complaints about an officer could be submitted to the Civilian Review Board. Matthew Leshinsky did just that.
A month ago, Leshinsky was a tenant at the Road Home, although now he works full time for a homeless-services provider and stays in a $200-a-week hotel until he lines up something more stable. Most of his day is spent at work or on the bus to and from work.
“Most of these people don’t really apply themselves,” Leshinsky says, taking a cigarette break on the corner of Rio Grande and 200 South, across from the Road Home. “But that’s still no excuse to get messed with by the cops.”
In his complaint to the CRB, Leshinksy echoed others’ criticism of Shane such as his tickets for sleeping outside and jaywalking. Leshinsky also recalls an incident when a homeless man had to walk around city workers and their truck that was powerwashing the sidewalk to the shelter.
“This guy, just to be polite, walked off the sidewalk and around the truck, and Shane grabbed him,” Leshinsky says. “[Shane] took him to jail for it. He probably had a warrant, I guess, but he was out two hours later and back to the shelter.”
Shane denies this incident ever happened and, in general, was skeptical of the complaints City Weekly presented to him.
“You’re getting this all from transients at the shelter?” Shane asks. “It sounds like people are vindictive toward me.”
Shane has been policing the Pioneer Park area for the past five years, and while he says policing isn’t a popularity contest, he feels his relationship with the homeless has been strong.
“Keep in mind, I’ve been down there over five years—I’m bound to upset people, I’m a police officer. A lot of people don’t like to see me,” Shane says. “The transients who are homeless and are truly in need of help, I help and try to accommodate in any way I can. But the people who are a burden, the people who are taking advantage of the homeless and dealing drugs—these are the people I go after.”
Shane denies that he unfairly uses the city’s disturbing-the-peace code—which allows a ticket for somebody obstructing a sidewalk—to harass the homeless. Shane says he would only issue these citations if a person were in danger because of another person blocking a sidewalk.
As for people sleeping near the shelter, Shane denies he or any other officer cite people for camping. Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank issued a moratorium on this practice amid protests from low-income providers who challenged the city on the issue in recent months. But that doesn’t apply to people sleeping on the sidewalk, Shane says, if they are dangerously obstructing the way for pedestrians.
Most who are cited in the area will wind up in Judge John Baxter’s Homeless Court, a court set up especially for homeless and transient residents. Baxter knows of Shane but wouldn’t comment on his policing. Overall, though, he’s noticed his court tends to dismiss an above-average number of simple infractions like disturbing the peace.
“There’s a higher percentage of those charges that the prosecution asks to dismiss than charges outside of the homeless-shelter area,” Baxter says, adding it’s not out of consideration to the homeless that the charges are dismissed but usually because the officer’s report lacks information about the offense which means prosecutors “have insufficient information to make a decision about whether to continue to prosecute.”
Bill Tibbitts, the Anti-Hunger Advocacy Project director at the Crossroads Urban Center, has been growing more and more concerned about the ticketing of homeless individuals for offenses such as disturbing the peace and loitering. Tibbitts says using tickets to arbitrarily push the homeless from one street to another is a short-sighted practice.
“I don’t know how the public interest is served when police go around handing out tickets for things that aren’t against the law,” Tibbitts says. “That just wastes the time of prosecutors who are paid by the taxpayer as well as Justice Court Judges.”
When asked about Shane’s policework, SLCPD spokeswoman Lara Jones said the department was not aware of any of these complaints.
“SLCPD has received no formal complaint through its internal affairs office about Officer Shane in this matter,” Jones writes in an e-mail. “Barring such a formal complaint, there isn’t much more to say.”
According to “Carlton,” who asked his real name not be used, just standing on the sidewalk to get into a shelter, even in the winter, is “disturbing the peace” for Shane. “Last winter, we would have to stand outside this building here,” Carlton says, gesturing toward the men’s entrance to the Road Home shelter.
“But if Shane’s working, he won’t let us line up.
“He plays by his own rules,” he says.
Shane also denies these allegations and recommended speaking to James Wolf, director of Road Home operations, for insight on his policing in the area.
“I would say we’ve had a very good working relationship with the police,” Wolf says, but adds that he couldn’t speak of Shane’s work specifically since he hasn’t witnessed much of it personally. He did recall a time when Shane asked for blankets to distribute to some of the residents outside. Wolf says there have been issues in the past where the police have cleared men away from lining up outside the shelters, but he doesn’t expect that to be a problem this winter with new shelter space available.
“Luke”—who asked that his real name not be used because of his employer’s policy on commenting to the media—is an employee of another homeless-services provider on Rio Grande Street and considers Shane an asset to the area.
“He’s been great in chasing out the drug dealers,” Luke says.
In approaching dozens of homeless residents, City Weekly found most who knew of Shane if they hadn’t personally been cited by him. Some were more understanding, such as “Stan,” who also asked his real name be withheld. Unlike some of their more irate friends, he knew Shane didn’t have an easy job.
“He’s just doing his job,” Stan says. “He just goes overboard.”
Eric S. Peterson: