a homeless man in a doorway

The Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) will soon be empowered to remove people sleeping in the doorways of closed businesses along highly trafficked areas of town, following a unanimous city council decision on Tuesday evening. 

The change expands the area where police officers had previously been empowered to remove transients and other people who sit or sleep overnight in business doorways; since 2002, SMPD officers were legally permitted to remove people from non-residential doorways Downtown or along Main Street without a specific complaint or 911 call. SMPD requested the expanded ordinance earlier this year.

SMPD Deputy Chief Executive Officer Sal Lucio, who spoke at the Tuesday, Sept. 13, council meeting, said SMPD requested the expanded enforcement area amid a “growing number of complaints and community concerns” about the number of people blocking business entrances overnight.

“Those who are working in these businesses typically must remove these individuals who are blocking ingress and egress to these locations and, oftentimes, these occur in the early morning hours or sometimes late at night,” Lucio described. “Unfortunately, at times, this has developed into a standoff or a confrontation … and the business owners or workers have been assaulted or injured — in addition to incidental crimes, or crimes of opportunity, such as break-ins, vandalism and arson, to name a few.”

For the last two decades, the Santa Monica Municipal Code has stipulated that “No person shall sit or lie down in any entrance to a building in the downtown or Main Street areas between the hours of eleven p.m. and seven a.m. if that entrance is posted with a sign prohibiting such conduct.” The revision, which passed in a unanimous, 7-0 council vote, expands the prohibition to include “the Downtown, Main Street, Broadway, Colorado Avenue, Lincoln Boulevard, Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Wilshire Boulevard areas,” stretching across the city from Ocean Avenue in the west to Santa Monica city limits in the east.

The prohibition applies to any building except those used for solely residential purposes. Building owners must post a sign prohibiting sitting or sleeping in doorways overnight, but the sign does not need to be renewed or meet any special requirements. There is an exception in the code for people standing in doorways, as well as for anyone suffering a medical emergency.

“While the City deploys a comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness that includes providing urgently needed housing and connections to services, there will be occasions when the City requires a humane, lawful approach to assuring basic rules are followed, especially where access to buildings is blocked and employees and customers are prevented from safely entering,” according to the SMPD request. “The proposed amendments in this report seek to balance these two objectives.”

Councilmember Phil Brock, who said he was “totally in favor” of the municipal code amendment, suggested the City conduct outreach to business owners to inform them that they can post signs or even provide and distribute laminated versions for business owners who wish to post them.

The move came two weeks after Police Chief Ramon Batista gave a presentation to council detailing new SMPD patrols that have cut downtown crime rates since July.

“We’ve had nearly zero or reduced assaults, zero or reduced aggravated assaults  — one of each — and no robberies and no arson cases,” Batista said during the Aug. 23 meeting. “Now, why this is important to us is because for all the weekends that we were looking at previously, we had a combination of these incidents happening, sometimes on the same day or the same weekend. So noting that we’ve now cut this in half, and these more serious Part 1 crimes are not occurring, that is important to us, and we’re seeing that as a success and the results of the work that we’re doing.”