Police chief: Downtown issues face everyone

Whether it’s due to overdoses, public intoxication, arrests, mental health calls or frequent rides to the hospital, Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said there are individuals frequenting the downtown with whom his department has interacted more than 100 times since January.
The issue, he explained, is complex and goes far beyond law enforcement.
Preston spoke to The Dominion Post about concerns raised by business owners frustrated by the amount of aggressive, criminal and otherwise unwanted behavior they see daily in the city’s downtown business district.
Specifically, representatives of three Walnut Street businesses recently addressed Morgantown City Council about what they view as a growing epidemic on their street, which they share with Health Right’s Friendship Room — one of several social service organizations located in and around the city’s downtown.
Preston said it’s a misnomer that all the people who regularly loiter downtown are homeless. While some are homeless, Preston said some are underemployed and rely on the available services, some simply choose an indigent lifestyle and many are dealing with addiction and/or mental health issues.
“This is one of those topics where there are so many aspects. It’s not police issue. It’s an ‘us’ issue,” Preston said. “The biggest thing is how and where services are being delivered. Who they’re being delivered to and how we deal with everything that surrounds that.”
Playing into the issue are a number of misconceptions about when law enforcement can get involved.
“Loitering in and of itself is not a criminal act. We cannot enforce no loitering. We can’t charge people with loitering because it’s not against the law in any way, shape or form,” Preston said. “What we have to do is deal with actions.”
But in order to make a misdemeanor arrest, an officer must witness criminal activity.
“That means if somebody sees unwanted behavior, they have to call so we can get an officer there quickly,” Preston said.
If an officer doesn’t witness the activity, a complainant must provide information that can be passed on to a judge in pursuit of a warrant.
“We also have to rely on people being good citizens and report what they see. We often get, ‘Just do your job. I don’t want to be involved.’ We can’t just do that. We have to follow the guidelines set by the courts,” he said.
Additionally, according to West Virginia Code 60-9-9f, the police cannot arrest an alcoholic for public intoxication. According to the West Virginia Supreme Court, such an arrest constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Preston said officers routinely go beyond their traditional roles to try to intervene on behalf of the city as well as those they repeatedly interact with.
He explained the department has started applying for involuntary commitments for individuals who don’t appear capable of taking care of themselves.
He also explained that between the police and the city’s public works staff, it’s not uncommon to fill a city dump truck every week with items pulled from encampments in areas like the rail-trail or beneath the South High Street Bridge.
Morgantown City Council will discuss setting a public meeting on the issues facing the downtown during its Tuesday committee meeting.
Councilor Zack Cruze said many of the people at the center of this issue are dealing with trauma and shouldn’t be dismissed or demonized. He said he dealt with similar circumstances in his 20s.
“I was homeless myself. It’s not because I’m a bad person. It’s not because I was lazy or anything I did. It’s because trauma is our gateway
to homelessness and trauma is our gateway
to drug addiction,” he said, adding any ire directed at services like the Friendship Room is misdirected.
“Friendship Room and Health Right are doing amazing things,” Cruze said. “When we have a fire, we’re not going to blame the fire department for causing the fire. We’re going to support the fire department because they’re there to help us put it out.”
Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty said Morgantown isn’t alone in facing these problems. While she conceded there are likely no easy solutions, the cost of doing nothing is too great.
“It’s bigger than all of us and it’s going to break us in the end if we don’t do something about it,” she said.

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