Police chief speaks out on effort to clean out homeless camps

Ohio County

WHEELING, W. Va. (WTRF)

Chief Shawn Schwertfeger said he believes Judge John Bailey’s ruling allowing the dismantling of several homeless camps was “completely fair.”

The chief said problems of crime continue to plague the four camps along Wheeling Creek in the downtown area.

Case in point: a huge fire was set underneath the Chapline Street Bridge on Thursday night.

He said there has also been at least one more overdose in the past week.

“We’re not targeting the homeless,” Chief Schwertfeger said. “This is not about oppressing anyone. There are upwards of 20 other homeless camps in the city that are NOT being removed. The camps that are being dismantled are places where there is habitual crime and violence.”

He is not pleased with several recent comments from advocates of the homeless who have said that if there is crime happening there, the police should simply arrest the criminals.

“We absolutely arrest them, time after time,” he said. “They get out days later, and continue to re-offend. We arrest them again, and they get out again.”

He said he had a conversation this week with a homeless man in one of the camps that was eye-opening for both of them.

He said the man told him he was from Mercer County, and only came to Wheeling because the city has so many opportunities for the homeless.

The man said he wanted to get a job, but didn’t know of any place that was hiring.

Schwertfeger told him about Ziegenfelder’s and several other local companies that frequently give jobs to people who are experiencing a hard time.

He said the man was surprised to hear that, and said no one had ever told him that.

Schwertfeger said the advocates often say the homeless people are turned away from shelters because they have addictions or mental illness, so they are shut down from any opportunities to improve their lives.

But he said every time there’s an overdose, the Wheeling Police Department partners with Serenity Hills to get them an immediate visit with an outreach worker.

Regarding mental illness, he said 20% of his officers are trained in crisis intervention, with more training planned.

He said his officers know many of the homeless people by name, and he said they are cordial and professional in their interactions.

“We’re not oppressing the homeless,” he said. “We are just addressing an area of extremely high crime that cannot continue to go on.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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