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New cop on downtown Vero beat seen as positive presence

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of February 8, 2024)

“Fair but firm.”

That’s how Vero Beach Police Officer Jeff Otis described his approach to his interactions with the homeless population in the city’s downtown area, particularly in and around Pocahontas Park.

Otis, who brings 26 years of law-enforcement experience to the job, began patrolling the downtown streets last week – on foot – as the police department launched its newly created Community Oriented Policing Unit.

The department’s decision to assign an officer to walk the downtown beat came at the urging of the City Council amid years of complaints of vagrants harassing pedestrians along 14th Avenue, behaving inappropriately in the park and loitering at the Rotary Fountain.

“Whenever we talked about improving our downtown, we heard repeatedly from the community about the problem with the unhoused people in that area,” Vero Beach Mayor John Cotugno said. “The situation had gotten to a point where it was making people uncomfortable, especially women and particularly in the park.

“That became the catalyst to get something done.”

Police Chief David Currey said he wanted to assign an officer exclusively to the downtown area sooner, but he lacked the manpower. Last summer, however, the City Council approved a budget increase that included funding for four additional police officers.

Currey has since filled those positions, assigning one full-time officer each to the Vero Beach Regional Airport, Traffic Enforcement Unit, Marine Unit/beaches patrol, and Community Oriented Policing Unit/downtown patrol.

In fact, the chief said he hopes to eventually add another officer to join Otis in the Community Oriented Policing Unit to patrol the beachside business district, especially along Ocean Drive.

“While Jeff is focusing on downtown, the other officer could so the same beachside,” Currey said. “They could even rotate back and forth.”

At this time, though – because of what was a growing homeless situation that isn’t nearly as noticeable or problematic on the island – the city felt a greater sense of urgency to put a cop downtown.

And make him visible.

For now, Otis’ shift runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, giving him ample time to patrol the downtown district, primarily: 14th Avenue between 18th and 23rd streets; Old Dixie Highway between 19th and 20th streets; and 13th Avenue between 20th and 21st streets.

Currey said the days and times Otis works can be adjusted if needed.

A marathon runner, Otis said he spends most of his time walking, but he has access to the department’s newly acquired golf cart. He also has requested a bicycle.

His police cruiser is parked conspicuously in the lot adjacent to the city-owned Heritage Center – which Currey said Otis may use as an unofficial substation – on the south side of Pocahontas Park.

“It’s been only a few days, but, so far, it’s going great,” said Otis, who spend 23 years with the East Hartford Police Department in Connecticut before joining Currey’s team two-plus years ago. “I’ve been very well received by the downtown community.

“People love seeing me out there, walking the beat like an old-fashioned cop and making myself present and accessible,” he added. “It’s tough to do that when you’re riding around in car, showing up for calls. I’m right there on the street, meeting people – business owners, workers, customers, visitors, even the homeless – and I’m talking to them.

“It’s the difference between being proactive and reactive.”

Otis said his presence on the streets and in the park, along with his early interactions with the downtown homeless population, already seems to be having an impact.

Not only have some vagrants chosen to relocate, but those who remain know he’s nearby and are behaving more lawfully.

“Often in these situations, just being seen is enough, but I’m seeking these people out and engaging with them,” Otis said. “I’ve told them: If you want help, I’ll get you help. If you want a job, I’ll connect you with someone who can help you get one. If you want to get out of your current situation, I’ll put you in touch with people who help you make that happen.

“Some people don’t want help,” he added. “In those cases, I’ve laid out the rules and told them what they can expect if they break them. Some have decided to move on. They don’t want to hang around with me there. Some have decided to stay and, so far, they’ve been abiding by the rules.”

Otis said he has sternly warned vagrants to not accost pedestrians, urinate in public or use the Rotary Fountain to bathe, telling them – in no uncertain terms – that such behavior will not be tolerated on his watch.

He is especially targeting the fountain, which had become a popular gathering place for downtown vagrants.

“They’re human beings, and the fact that they’re homeless is no excuse to treat them improperly,” Otis said, “but they need to follow the same rules as everyone else.”

Or as Currey put it: “He’s letting them know what they can and can’t do.”

Currey said downtown stakeholders have told him they’ve seen fewer vagrants at the fountain since Otis began his patrols two Mondays ago. He added that he drove past the fountain one day last week and “didn’t see anyone there.”

To enhance his efforts, Otis is giving downtown business owners department-printed, orange placards that contain a pre-trespass warning to vagrants who might want to loiter on the premises.

The placard, which can be posted outside the establishment, warn that the business is a member of the police department’s Community Partnership Unit and officer are “authorized to enforce the FLORIDA TRESPASS LAWS on this property.”

The placard’s warning continues: “Failure to leave this property after being instructed to by law enforcement WILL RESULT IN YOUR ARREST. We prosecute all crimes and do not tolerate loitering or panhandling on our property.”

As of late Friday, Otis had not made any arrests on his new patrol.

“If he doesn’t make an arrest, he doesn’t make an arrest,” Currey said. “But I promise you: If he needs to, he will.”

As the executive director of Main Street Vero Beach – a nonprofit organization that promotes and advocates for downtown businesses – Matt Haynes had repeatedly asked the city to address the homeless problem in the area, particularly in and around Pocahontas Park.

He welcomed Otis’ arrival.

“The impact of being on site where he can manage these issues in real time is nothing but positive,” Haynes said, adding that he asked Currey to formally introduce Otis to the downtown business community at this week’s “Coffee with the Mayor” gathering at 8 a.m. Friday at the Heritage Center.

“We needed an increased police presence downtown,” he added, “but he seems to have the right attitude and temperament to do this job. When you meet him, you get a very positive vibe.”

A U.S. Army veteran, Otis possesses a variety of law-enforcement experience: road patrol, detective, SWAT/sniper supervisor, chief firearms instructor, bicycle patrol and community outreach.

He said he was hired during the Clinton Administration through a community policing grant and began his career in that realm.

“I’ve seen the effectiveness of this type of policing,” Otis said. You’re going to get a good result. But you’ve got to really want to do it.”

Otis does.

He’s already thinking ahead – to the summer heat and humidity, both of which will make walking the downtown streets more draining. He has requested a climate-friendly uniform.

“Shorts and a green high-visibility shirt,” Otis said, adding that both need to be made of a moisture-wicking material. “I want to feel comfortable and appear approachable.”

Currey is completely supportive.

“We’re going to make him as comfortable as we can, so he can be out there and be seen,” the chief said. “Also, if he needs to, he can use the Heritage Center or get in his car and turn on the air conditioning.

“But I don’t think there will be any shortage of local business owners asking him to come inside to cool off and offering him a cold drink,” he added. “They want him out there.”