tampabay.com

Slashing of tents was legal, police report says

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published April 4, 2007


It began with police officers worrying about tents being set up too close to a fire hydrant on Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

The department's solution: Send officers to seize tents and slash them with box cutters, a decision that Mayor Rick Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon later called a mistake after a large public outcry.

A department report released this week calls the decision to slash the tents legal.

But the report, which was written by police Maj. Melanie Bevan, who came up with the idea to cut tents if the people inside them resisted, concludes by saying "other options could and should have been explored, and will be during any future similar circumstance."

So how could an operation designed to "minimize physical confrontation" end up as a public relations disaster for the city?

The answer seems to be that top department officials were so concerned with avoiding arrests that they forgot about another factor: They were asking police officers to take, and sometimes tear apart, the few possessions that homeless people have.

Although Bevan says she asked officers to "make every effort to reduce the potential loss of property" during the raid, she also notes that speed was a factor:

"Tents where the occupant was uncooperative ... or contained a large amount of property would be removed at the base via cutting them."

In her report, Bevan suggests that the homeless people who set up tents along 15th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Street were influenced by advocates for the homeless such as Eric Rubin and the Rev. Bruce Wright.

She also says that officers encountered resistance when they asked the homeless to take down their tents because of fire code violations - such as reports of people smoking or cooking in tents.

The solution - cut tents if people resisted - came up during a meeting of top department officials that included Bevan, Harmon, deputy mayor David Metz and others.

The ensuing operation took "under 10 minutes," as Bevan notes.

Police seized 20 tents and cut eight. But the move drew weeks of negative repercussions, and eventually led to the creation of a new, city-authorized tent city.

In an interview, Harmon said he found Bevan's memo "thorough."

He said in the future, officers "would do things a little bit differently" if facing a similar situation, but doesn't anticipate any disciplinary actions.

But Rubin, an advocate for the homeless, dismissed the report:

"Correct me if I'm wrong," he said.

"The major Bevan who came up with the idea did the investigation and found out there was nothing wrong? Isn't that kind of like, how do you say, the fox guarding the henhouse?"

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.