Complaint-Oriented Policing Perpetuates Cycle of Poverty Among People who are Homeless

A new paper in American Sociological Review, “Complaint-Oriented Policing: Regulating Homelessness in Public Space,” examines how a significant increase in homelessness-related 911 complaints in San Francisco has affected the vulnerability of individuals experiencing homelessness and increased the difficulty of escaping homelessness. The author finds that, despite a relatively stable unsheltered homeless population between 2013 and 2017, 911 calls about the homeless increased by 72%.

Using nearly 4 million 911 and 311 records, the paper documents a growing number of homeless complaints in San Francisco and a corresponding growth in police dispatches to handle those complaints. Yearly 311 complaints in San Francisco regarding homeless individuals grew from 9,590 to 84,486 between 2011 and 2017. The massive growth of 911 and 311 complaints corresponded with an increase in average monthly dispatches to the San Francisco Police Department related to “homeless concerns,” from roughly 5,000 in 2012 to 7,623 in 2018. The author points to a multitude of factors to account for the increased demand for policing homelessness, such as the growth in development, commuters, and residents; changes in urban governance; and political pressures to address homelessness.

The paper describes how police officers have responded to this upward trend of complaints, drawing on a variety of ethnographic observations between 2014 and 2017. Roughly 90% of dispatches for homeless complaints were resolved with move-along orders rather than citations or arrests, which resulted in “constant churning of homelessness in public space.” When arrests were made, they were most commonly used to clear properties of homeless individuals. Another common response by the police was to redirect the homeless problem to another agency by calling ambulances, directing individuals to social services, or working with sanitation authorities—a process the paper calls “bureaucratic shuffling.” Police officers generally viewed policing of the homeless as a misplaced priority that should be handled by other agencies.

Finally, drawing on data from a community-based survey of 351 homeless individuals in San Francisco, the author details how complaint-oriented policing produces a process of pervasive penalty that prolongs homelessness, increases conflict among vulnerable people, and disorganizes already chaotic lives. Sixty-nine percent of all respondents had been cited by police in the past year, and over 60% could not pay their most recent citation. Failing to pay a citation resulted in a further $300 assessment, revocation of a driver’s license, and a bench warrant issued for arrest, all of which can negatively impact people’s credit and create barriers to accessing services, housing, and employment. The author also noted that policing created pressure among the homeless to keep encampments small, which created continual interpersonal conflict among homeless individuals looking for safe spaces.

The author argues that reducing the criminalization of homelessness will require new policy approaches, given the prominence of complaint-oriented policing. The wide distribution of power to mobilize policing through caller complaints may require deep structural changes, and anti-homeless laws demand a critical look. The prevalence of complaint-oriented policing also highlights the need for more proactive and extensive policies that support public health services, social services, and housing.

The full report can be read at: