For discussion

January 2017

Disrupting the Revolving Door: A look at alternative justice in Fargo

Officer Jesseca White is one of two Downtown Resource Officers (DRO) with the Fargo Police Department.  This team is specifically assigned to provide enhanced services to the downtown area with a main focus to help promote a revitalized, safe, and vibrant downtown. The DROs work closely with various city programs, community organizations, and local businesses and residents to achieve this.  Officer White has been with the Fargo Police Department since 2008 and was recently reassigned as a DRO in 2016.  A Police Training Officer (PTO) within the department, Officer White fosters relationships with and coaches new officers.  Officer White is also a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) and has a passion for impaired driving enforcement.  She was recently recognized as the DRE of the year for 2016 in the state of North Dakota and is a member of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a CSI, and PACT team member for the department. 

To start this out, I will have to give you a little back story about myself.  I have been a police officer with Fargo PD for 8 years.  I greatly enjoy what I do but I was reaching a point in my career where I needed to try something new. I could feel the effects of “burn-out” creeping up on me.  I had the opportunity to interview for the Downtown Resource Officer (DRO) position within our department.  Like with anything new, I was hesitant for change although I knew I needed it.  The position of Downtown Resource Officer (DRO) mainly focuses on dealing with our downtown community which includes residents, businesses, and visitors on a daily basis.  Our downtown Fargo area has grown immensely from when it was first established, and it appears that the growth is still ongoing.  With that growth come many different features.  Vibrancy leads to population growth in a condensed area.  With population growth comes all sorts of demographics.  I was faced with a diverse population downtown that included some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest people within our community.  I had no clue what I was getting into, but I dove in head first and started to figure it out.  I was quickly made aware of the issue of homelessness and chemical dependency in the downtown area and of what DRO’s before me had done to tackle the issue.  At this point, I was unsure of where I was going to find myself as a DRO, so I utilized a method I had learned while I was a new officer in training. 

In our Police Officer Training program, we teach the concept of problem based learning (PBL).  You are given a problem that is complex, has multiple solutions, relevant to the job, and forces you to research the issue before coming up with an action plan.  The goal is to make officers better prepared for what they encounter in the future and to make them more involved in proactive problem solving.  I used this process to develop and pilot the program that I now call the “Downtown Community Work Program.”  The “problem” I chose was how to improve the downtown community which, I quickly learned, included the homeless and/or chemically dependent population.

The first step of the PBL (problem based learning) process is to come up with initial ideas and the rule is “no idea is a bad idea.”  I came up with a few ideas that were all over the board.  The list included harsher punishments, zero tolerance for violations, required rehabilitation, do nothing, and the list goes on.  From that step, you move into the next phase where you identify your known facts. In my situation, I was dealing with a population of homeless individuals who were continuously being cited for quality of life issues.  These issues consisted of consuming alcohol in public, urinating in public, criminal trespass and other such offenses.  These people were routinely being cited, not showing up for their court dates, being issued warrants and, consequently, ending up in jail. Once these individuals were released, the cycle started all over again, hence why we call it a “revolving door.” 

Now that I’ve identified the known facts of my problem, my next step was to research what I didn’t know and/or needed to know.  This step is called the Learning Issues phase and it is where you learn the most about your problem and find out answers to your unknowns. You then use that information to develop an action plan.  This phase forced me to get to know this group of people and those who are involved in community outreach for that population group. 

The crucial ideas I learned from this project had great bearing on the action plan I developed later.  These ideas heavily influenced my way of thinking. While I was gaining resources, I met an individual who worked for the city, doing homeless outreach.  She was my gateway into what it meant to be living without a home in the downtown area. I gained a lot of respect for her and what she does on a daily basis with the limited resources she has.  I met a lot of various groups and people who worked with individuals ranging from medical and mental health needs to survival-based needs.  I started to get to know some of the homeless population.  I was hearing their stories about why they became homeless, developed chemical dependencies, and how they ended up here in Fargo, ND.  Through conversations, I became curious as to why the “revolving door” kept occurring.  I found that it was even more common than one would think.  Through my research, I came across the concept of community court and other programs to help disrupt this “revolving door” concept.

The new perspective I gained greatly influenced my action plan, which was the next step in my process.  The action plan is where you take all of what you learned and put it into a plan that you believe could work.  My action plan was to develop a community service program for the homeless population in order to work-off fines.  After the action plan, the final step is to evaluate whether you think the plan was/is effective or not. Based on the research and experiences I had gained; a pilot program was created throughout the city for homeless individuals. It is a program offered to this population as a way to work-off their fines by doing community service in the areas in which they stay and not have to bog down the jail and court system.

In getting to know this population, I began to see them on their good days and, unfortunately, their bad days.  I was routinely seeing the same names when I wrote citations, when I would go to court, when new warrants would be issued, and when I would see the jail roster.  I was also seeing them when they were passed out at the bus station, on benches, and in the library.  I was seeing able-bodied people who suffered from addiction.  In building relationships, I found that the key to sobriety for a lot of them was staying busy.  I also wanted this population to see some of the damage they were causing to the downtown area by their actions.  I wanted them to become more invested in an area that many of them call home by contributing in a positive manner.  I took some time to engage in conversations with many who found themselves in this “revolving door” situation.  I became aware of the struggles they faced ranging from unemployment and chemical dependency to homelessness, lack of services, historical trauma and mental health issues.  The term “the struggle is real” took on a whole new meaning to me.  I wanted to try something different, I wanted to try and interrupt the continuous cycle. My end game was to essentially help everyone involved by bettering the livelihoods of this population and to see improvements in their lives. 

In tackling this issue, I realized the large part that cost played into it. I started by looking into the court process.  A typical route for someone committing a wrong in this situation is to issue a citation for the offense with a court date scheduled for a later time.  The people cited tended to not show up for those court dates and a warrant was issued.  This would result in them being arrested and incarcerated until an in-custody court date was scheduled. Those persons, depending on the number of prior offenses would either receive time served or would be issued a fine.  These people are then turned back out to society to start the door revolution over again.  I looked at this from a few different views.  The first being a monetary one.  Our consuming alcohol in public ticket is a B misdemeanor and at most the penalty can be 30 days in jail and a $1000 fine.  Through the court process and jail time, a person incarcerated can cost the system anywhere from $60-$100 a day at a low estimate.  If you included the time taken by officers to arrest a person with a warrant, which probably includes taking them to a medical facility to be cleared to go to jail, you could easily double that amount.  The fines given to most of these people were never getting paid and the police department was losing money on the process as a whole.  Along with this waste of money, there wasn’t much evidence that the process was actually preventing the behavior in the first place.

I wanted to fine-tune the program of working-off tickets to make downtown a better place and create a long-term solution.  In doing so, I sat down with the city’s homeless outreach coordinator and one of the directors of our local shelter.  I found that the city’s goal is to get the homeless population linked to services that were getting overlooked like stable housing and ways to better themselves.  I sat down with both of them and we talked about a model called “community court”, a separate court system that includes a judge, lawyers (both prosecutor and defense), social workers, and the violator themselves working together on a different approach to punishment.  With support from within the Fargo police department and input from judges and attorneys, the new program was started through the Municipal Courts with an action plan to start a community service program for the homeless population downtown.  Municipal Court already utilized a non-profit community service provider, but there were a few barriers difficult for this population to get over such as a $50 fee to participate and no active accountability for participants.   

We started with a small group of individuals who had fines and were showing an interest in bettering themselves.  The outreach coordinator did most of the recruiting and I worked out the fine details on how the program would run.  The plan was to have the group meet two times a week and work picking up trash in the downtown area.  Each hour worked was worth $10 put directly towards their fines with hours tracked on a spreadsheet and reported back to Municipal Court when someone completed the program or was expected not to, due to a lack of interest or lack of attendance.    We started out in late August and pretty soon word had spread and people were asking daily to be in the program.  The outreach coordinator and myself would meet participants during the week and would walk around downtown collecting trash.  We ultimately transitioned to having two shelter advocates run the work program, I would track the hours worked, and the outreach coordinator would recruit. We did not want to accept everyone because we knew some would abuse the program by using it to avoid jail time and not taking steps to better themselves. We were searching for individuals who were seeking housing, working for treatment, staying sober, etc. 

So far, this program has been a great success. Just before submitting this article, the group had worked-off a total just under $3200 worth of fines.  This is money the city would have never seen. They ultimately would have spent that value (and then some) in housing these individuals in jail.  Also worth noting are the four participants who remained housed during their time in the program and two others who gained housing as a result of the process.  We currently have two waiting on a housing list and half of the participants have entered rehab.  Overall, half of the participants remained free of criminal activity while the other half re-offended.  We had two participants finish the program completely and one got a job.  As with every new program, there is never going to be a perfect set of results. The progress achieved, however, far outweighs the negatives.  One of the biggest lessons I learned was to take the little victories for what they were and not get hung up on one bad event.  Being proactive was another victory for myself, the Fargo police department, and the community as a whole. 

We joke now that we really “MacGyvered” this program together. We did not have much at the time but we made it work as best as we could.  I would love to see this program flourish.  It has so much promise. If someone could devote all of their time/resources to this program, it could be a great benefit to the community and the participants involved.  We have the initial numbers to support the program as being one potential solution to our “revolving door” issue.  I wanted to find an answer to my original problem, and what I ended finding was a door opening to a room with many chairs at a table for further conversation.  Not only do we have a successful project that continues to progress, but we also started a conversation that I am hopeful continues to help individuals and the community.

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