Police Officer Jim Geist whipped out his binoculars and quickly spotted one of his targets lurking behind a palm tree in a park off Birch Street.
"Look, he's got some napkins or something in his hands," Geist said, as his partner maneuvered their police cruiser toward the man who appeared to be on the verge of defecating in public.
But by the time Geist and his partner arrived at the spot, the man was gone. The officers moved on, taking up new positions during a controversial roundup that critics say unfairly targets the homeless and Latinos.
Geist and his partner were among a special force of 18 officers deployed Tuesday during the second sweep through the Civic Center area in 4 days. The goal, police say, is to rid the area of a rise in crime.
During Tuesday's sweep, 26 people were arrested, most for municipal code infractions such as drinking in public, blocking entrance ways and urinating in public. One man was arrested on suspicion of brandishing a knife and seven others were arrested on outstanding warrants.
The first sweep last Thursday, which resulted in 64 people being cited, was met with strong opposition from homeless-rights advocates who said that the tactics were out of date and smacked of Naziism.
During that sweep, officers scrawled red numbers on the arms of those arrested and chained them to a bench at Santa Ana Stadium for 6 hours. Most of those cited last week were ticketed for littering, others for jaywalking, urinating or drinking in public.
Nineteen of the detained were later determined to be illegal aliens and were turned over to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials.
The arrests have sparked an outcry from the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, which says it will seek a temporary restraining order against further police action.
"Other cities are watching Santa Ana do this and will follow suit," said Robert J. Cohen, Legal Aid's executive director. "This is going to escalate the problems for the homeless everywhere."
Yet, despite opposition, police said they will continue the sweeps in response to complaints from government workers and others who say they have been routinely harassed and threatened by homeless people outside their office buildings on the way to and from work.
On Tuesday, police invited representatives of the local media to ride along during the sweeps in an attempt to generate public support for the new policy. Teams of officers on foot and in cars patrolled an area defined by Washington, 1st, French and Flower streets, in search of people urinating in public, drinking or committing other misdemeanors.
But the scene was quieter than officers had expected. Blankets and shopping carts stuffed with belongings lay unattended outside the Hall of Administration building and the courthouse, as some of the homeless apparently made themselves scarce. A few people slept on the grass, oblivious to the commotion around them.
Some undercover officers were posted on the courthouse rooftop and peered down at the street through binoculars, as they do during narcotics surveillances. Uniformed officers patrolled the area in police cars.
"Everyone knew we would be here today," Police Lt. Collie Provence said. "But if we stopped one auto burglary by being here today, then that was good."
Last year, 707 police incidents were reported in the Civic Center area from January to July. This year, the number has increased more than 11% to 790 incidents reported. In June, 1989, there were 76 crimes reported in the Civic Center plaza. In June of this year, 131 incidents were reported, a 72% increase, police said.
"We're not saying all of the increase in crime is attributed to the homeless," Provence said at a briefing before the roundup. "But we know that some of the homeless are also committing some of the crimes. We're here to catch whoever we can, not just the homeless."
Meanwhile, Legal Aid officials met with representatives from the public defender's office Tuesday to discuss how those arrested would exercise their right to a jury trial.
Cohen said that Legal Aid and several other civil rights and immigrant rights advocates will form a task force to provide legal defense for those cited and arrested during the sweeps.
Hailed AS HERO: Police Chief Paul Walters finds support for sweeps. A1