Police Shooting Sparks Debate in San Clemente
City council candidates try to answer the questions that have come up in the aftermath
When a homeless black man named Kurt Andras Reinhold, 42, was shot dead by an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy in San Clemente, California, it struck a chord amid nationwide protests over police shootings.
It also raised questions in the city about how the police and other officials should handle the homeless, mentally ill, and those struggling with addiction.
Two deputies on the homeless outreach team approached Reinhold outside Hotel Miramar on Sept. 23. The rough picture of what happened has been patched together from a surveillance video and witness accounts, though still under investigation.
What possibly happened was that Reinhold was jaywalking and disrupting traffic, so deputies with the homeless outreach team approached him. A conflict ensued in which Reinhold may have grabbed for the weapon of one of the deputies before the other deputy shot and killed him.
His family filed a wrongful death complaint, alleging the deputies targeted him as a black man. The incident has upset the small city of about 65,000.
The Epoch Times interviewed seven of 10 candidates vying for two four-year seats on San Clemente’s city council in the Nov. 3 election. Many declined to discuss Reinhold’s case directly, except to say his death was a tragedy, as they await conclusions from the county district attorney’s investigation.
But they did discuss the aftermath of the incident, some proposals for change being talked about in the city.
The candidates overwhelmingly rejected the notion of building a new regional homeless shelter in San Clemente. Most don’t support suggestions that the city break away from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) to form a local police department.
They also discussed their views of homelessness in the city, with a couple of candidates having had personal experiences with homelessness.
Sheriff Don Barnes said at a Sept. 25 press conference that Reinhold was homeless and had been in the area for about a month. Deputies had previously reached out to Reinhold, whose last known address was in Los Angeles. They had offered to get him into a shelter, but he refused.
OCSD’s homeless outreach team includes three sergeants and 33 deputies, all trained on how to interact with the mentally ill and de-escalate conflict.
The day after the shooting about 40 to 50 people were protesting in front of the hotel, when a handful of them allegedly tried to take over the street. Four were arrested for disorderly conduct, and one was arrested for vandalism, according to the OCSD.
Policing and Public Safety
“The most important issue to me, and I feel it’s the most important issue to voters, is No. 1 public safety and how we’re going to protect this city,” James said.
Although James supports the rights of protesters to demonstrate peacefully, “you see what’s going on in the major metropolitan areas,” he said. “I am very concerned that after the election, regardless of which way the election goes, that we will have another wave of civil disturbances across the entire country, and I’m very concerned that it will spill over into our city.”
Joseph Kenney, a small business owner, said that in San Clemente, “a lot of people are torn on whether or not we should keep the sheriff’s department or go back to having a local police department.”
I think that we need to always wait for the facts to come out before we react as a society,” Kenney said. “What I don’t support is this blind rage and assumption of guilt across the board for every police officer in a questionable incident. And, even if things are tragic, the facts do matter.”
Thor Johnson, 30, a small business owner, called for more improvements to public safety strategies. “San Clemente is too good of a city for that to happen, and so policy needs to change,” he said.
“Police brutality is real, and there is no place for it in San Clemente. … I’m not saying whether that was police brutality or not; I’m just saying that San Clemente cannot become a place for police brutality.”
He thanked the OCSD “because I feel a lot more safe in San Clemente than I do in San Diego or Los Angeles.” Like other candidates, Johnson supports the idea of sending a mental health expert out on patrol with police officers.
Chris Duncan, 44, a former prosecutor and attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, said his first priority is to make sure that police officers make it home to their families every day, “but I think we need to recognize that what happened with Kurt Reinhold was a tragedy.”
He supports fully funding the expanding the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT), a group of licensed mental health clinicians that accompany sheriff’s deputies on patrol in case they encounter people who may have mental health problems. “I think we can improve training with our deputies as well, but I do certainly support the sheriff’s deputies.”
Jeff Wellman, 38, a healthcare sales director, said he supports the police, but wonders who is going to fill the ranks of police departments and firefighters in the future with all the stress they have to face. “Maybe if they do have to protect their lives; they might get in trouble,” he said.
“I’m really worried about the future generation of our police. I really am. Who is going to want to do that thankless job?”
Charlie Smith, 48, a corporate banker, said “everyone is sad about the loss of life.” But more tragedies will occur, he said, if political leaders avoid dealing with the root causes of homelessness and addiction, and if they prevent police officers from enforcing law and order.
“We’re not dealing with homelessness. We’re just allowing things to fester, and we’re using Band-Aid solutions,” he said. “Bad things are going to happen.”
Patrick Minnehan, 59, a chief information officer, said he supports the OCSD, but would like to see more deputies reside locally to get to know the community better.
“I support our Sheriff,” he said. And, while some people talk about defunding the OCSD or forming the city’s own police department, Minnehan said “that’s just not fiscally responsible.”
“The events that happened—obviously, that’s tragic,” Minnehan said.
The shooting not only cost Reinhold his life and hurt his family, it also affected the lives of the deputies and their families, he said. “Those deputies have to live with that for the rest of their lives also.”
James, an endorsed Republican, has fought against proposals to create a regional homeless shelter in San Clemente’s open space. “Homeless” is a terrible word, he said, because it misses the point that “homelessness is a symptom and not the disease.
“The disease that we’re dealing with on the streets of San Clemente among our criminal vagrant population is … mental health issues and drug addiction, and probably in many cases, it’s both,” he said.
“For every homeless person you see walking the streets of San Clemente, there’s a family who is suffering as well, so we need to see about how we can reunify and return these individuals to their homes and with families, where they can get the love and attention that is going to be required in their recovery.”
James cited the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Martin vs. Boise case as one of the reasons police are not enforcing anti-camping and no-loitering laws.
In that case, Robert Martin and several other homeless people sued the City of Boise, Idaho, saying a ban on sleeping or camping on public property violated their Eighth Amendment rights, criminalizing them for carrying out basic bodily functions.
The court ruled in favor of Martin in 2019, deciding the homeless could sleep on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives. The U.S. Supreme Court later denied a petition to review the case, thus leaving the 9th Circuit ruling in effect.
“Consequently, these people get away with just about anything they want to get away with,” James said.
He has proposed forming a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) with Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, and approaching the County of Orange for land on the Ortega Highway east of Rancho Mission Viejo to build a regional detox and vocational counselling facility.
James is not in favor of programs like Project Roomkey, a statewide initiative to put at-risk homeless people in hotel and motel rooms amid the pandemic. He said initiatives of this sort often do not treat the underlying problems.
Minnehan, 59, is registered as No Party Preference, and says he supports common sense. “I realize in this society we’re a two-party system, Democrat and Republican, but for me to sleep at night, I have to vote my conscience,” he said.
Although homelessness is a widespread problem in parts of the state, he questions whether San Clemente is one of them. “Is homelessness a problem when you have less than 100 homeless people in a city of less than 67,000? … I don’t necessarily think it is.”
He said the city is doing a good job of handling homelessness through various county agencies, but on a personal level, he knows more work needs to be done.
When people drive by someone living on the street, they often see homelessness as an eyesore, he said. But if you look deeper, the question becomes “what’s that person’s story?”
A couple of years ago, Minnehan’s own brother, a veteran, was dealing with some personal problems and showed up at his door. He was homeless.
“I hadn’t seen him in probably five years, and he had some challenges. He was just looking for some help,” Minnehan said.
After listening to his story, Minnehan realized his brother needed help and arranged to get him to Veterans Affairs for counselling and assistance. “We got him to the V.A. where they’ve got the resources, and he now has a roof over his head and he’s happy, but he just needed a little help.”
Anyone who has ever ended up living on the street has their own tale of woe, “and their stories are all personal,” so there is no one-size-fits-all remedy, he said.
“There are people that will say we need to round them up and ship them out, and well, you know, you’ve got to have some compassion,” Minnehan said.
“But the bottom line is I don’t know if our homeless problem is as bad as some people perceive. However, it still needs to be addressed and still needs to be worked on,” he said.
Smith, an endorsed Republican, said he developed a “unique understanding,” of the homelessness issue at an impressionable age. When he was about 13, he and his younger sister were essentially homeless, going from place to place, as their mother fed her drug addiction.
“We found roofs to be underneath, but we didn’t have a home,” Smith said.
Eventually, “I broke the bonds of poverty,” he said. “But it was charity—my church and the foster system—that rescued my sister and I from that situation.”
And, when he was old enough, Smith joined the U.S. Army and served in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, the “Airborne Rangers.”
Through his church, he now pays it forward by helping people to become more self-reliant. Still, he doesn’t want to see a homeless shelter built in San Clemente. “Our city is not the right place for a shelter, given our location off the coast and we don’t have the resources to be able to handle that,” he said.
The best way to recover from homelessness, is for people to go back to where they came from or where they have family, Smith said. San Clemente, he said, is already built out, which makes property and housing too pricey. “People who are looking to get on their feet really need to look at moving to other areas,” where the cost of living is lower, he said.
Giving the homeless hotel vouchers is neither a great, nor long-term, solution, said Smith. He’s a firm believer in an old adage: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Johnson changed his party affiliation from Republican to No Party Preference (NPP) several years ago because he considers himself to be “a free thinker.” Still, “the only endorsement I would ever seek would be from the Republican Party,” he said.
“My policy for the homeless is shape up and ship out,” he said. “And, it’s all about love. It’s about identifying their needs, giving them the resources they need to help them get up on their feet, connecting them with county resources and then helping them get on their way to wherever they’re going, or whatever they need.”
“I’m against a homeless shelter, any short-term, long-term, any drug rehab or anything like that. And, the reason why, is in our community, we simply don’t want it. … We don’t want it, so we’re not going to have it,” said Johnson.
Growing up in Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, Johnson saw what he calls the “homeless encroachment,” and he blames “liberal policies” for the city’s decline. “It had always been my dream to live there, but not anymore because the government has destroyed San Diego,” Johnson said.
“San Diego used to be a Republican, conservative city, but in the last 10 years or so, it has basically turned into a third world country, like Los Angeles, and crime has skyrocketed. There are so many homeless people; there are so many drug addicts and drug dealers and people urinating and defecating on the sidewalks in nice neighborhoods with million-dollar homes,” he said.
Johnson doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to San Clemente, and he vowed to be “the shield between freedom and big government tyranny.”
“I’m against feeding the homeless, and I’m against housing the homeless,” said Johnson. “I recently got a birdfeeder to entertain my cat. And the birds come, and more and more come. …That’s just the law of nature, so if we feed the homeless, more and more are just going to come.”
Duncan, an endorsed Democrat, said he supports a new regional homeless shelter run by the county in a location farther inland than San Clemente.
He said it should be a transitional facility staffed by mental health professionals and substance abuse experts. He vowed, if elected, to work with the county and regional authorities to help develop a comprehensive local plan to solve the homeless crisis.
All candidates acknowledged that not everyone who finds themselves in dire straits is an addict or is mentally ill. “Some people have just fallen on hard times or lost their job,” Duncan said.
Kenney, a Republican, said “it’s a mistake to pass laws that just let people live on the streets,” and prevent authorities from moving them or getting them into treatment. He said the state is to blame for lax laws and decriminalization policies that have all but made petty theft and illicit drug possession legal.
“You should be allowed to break laws, because you’re homeless,” he said, summing up his opinion of how state laws treat these matters. “I know that the police feel hamstrung.”
“I don’t come at this without empathy,” Kenney said. But he doesn’t support “just throwing up a huge homeless shelter in our backyard either, because I think it will attract a lot more people.”
He said putting the homeless up in motels and “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” approaches might sound like a great idea to some, or look good on paper, but may not be the best practical solution. “It’s a fancier way of avoiding the problem, and it’s burdening the system.”
Wellman, a self-described conservative, said that of about 100 people who were living in the homeless encampment park in the city, less than a dozen were from San Clemente.
“Imagine if every city just took care of their own homeless,” he said.
The homeless problem, he said, started with the wholesale closure of mental hospitals decades ago. “All the funding for the mental health went out the window, and that created this problem. Then, you compound it with the opioid problem, and … people who might have had a small addiction now have a full-blown heroin addiction.”
He opposes the construction of a homeless shelter in the city. Judging by what’s happened in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Wellman said he has a premonition that “if you build it, they will come.”
Candidates Jeff Provance Jr., Aaron Washington, Bill Hart could not be reached for comment.