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Mike Masterson: The Exit Interview

Boise's second-longest serving police chief sits down with Boise Weekly

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In May 2013, Masterson sat alongside city attorneys when they proposed a package of ordinances to combat what he called "increased harassing or panhandling that have a negative impact on the city's use of public space." The proposals were met with approval from the Boise City Council but were ultimately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, arguing that the city was "criminalizing homelessness." Since then, BW has chronicled how the city has refined its so-called "anti-camping" ordinance and Boise police began handing out more warnings and citations to homeless individuals whose numbers grew this past summer along Americana Boulevard, just blocks from crowded shelters

BW: On any given day in downtown Boise, there are fewer panhandlers than your fingers and toes. Yet, there is a lot of energy coming from City Hall and your department to crack down on these people.

Masterson: I want to prohibit certain behaviors that citizens, other than you, say make them uncomfortable. And they've been complaining to us.

BW: But the number of complaints really can't be significant. Should that be driving policy?

Masterson: Citizens are being asked for money; and when they say "No," the confrontation with the panhandler isn't over. And you've seen these people. They're organized and it's almost like a racket. There are some people who feign disability in wheelchairs, but then they walk back to their cars and drive home. I really think the city's "Have a Heart, Give Smart" program [which urges citizens to give to recognized charities instead of directly to the homeless] is great.

BW: With due respect, doesn't that campaign talk down to citizens, presuming that they don't truly know where their money is going when they hand a dollar to an individual? Can't you acknowledge that some of us simply feel a little better when we put a dollar in someone's hand?

Masterson: You and I are opposites on this, because I'll turn around and give $500 to the Rescue Mission. And when I was walking downtown a week ago, I was accosted twice and I said "No" twice. And I felt good about that.

BW: We're going to agree to disagree on this, but to be clear: are you saying that panhandling in Boise is a significant issue, or is it the public's perception that it's a significant issue?

Masterson: It's public perception.

BW: How about Boise's overall problem of homelessness?

Masterson: My officers say they're seeing new faces on the streets all the time. What's really disheartening is that there are some other communities who practice what we used to call "Greyhound therapy."

BW: You're talking about some cities handing bus tickets to the homeless to get them out of town.

Masterson: My officers see Boise as a generous community where citizens give a lot of stuff to the homeless, yet we don't provide any place for the homeless to store all of that stuff in the daytime. We noticed pretty early this summer that there was a lack of restroom facilities along Americana as the numbers of homeless grew. And our police officers were the ones to get more restrooms out there, long before the media got into the story. Our patrol and bicycle officers know many of the homeless by name. And if you ask them, I think a good number of the homeless will tell you that there's respect and dignity coming from our department.