It was just after 4 a.m. when officers from the Sedona Police Department and the U.S. Forest Service met to formulate a plan that was to take place just as the sun began to rise.
By 5 a.m., the group of about 10 parked near Sunset Park as part of an operation to make contact with those camping illegally within the city limits but on USFS land. Most are homeless with some having lived in the area for quite some time.
“We don’t want it to look as though we’re heartless or harassing the homeless — we’re just enforcing the law,” SPD Chief David McGill said a few days prior to the Sunday, June 4, sweep. “We do have compassion for these people but what they’re doing is illegal.
“We are hoping to cite and release but at the same time we’ll also be checking for outstanding warrants. We don’t plan to confiscate their property, that will be up to them. But if it’s not removed within 72 hours, they face additional charges.”
When officers scouted the area undercover five days earlier, they counted at least 10 camps all within a quarter-mile of one another. But on the day of the event, they spoke to about six campers while another two tents were unoccupied as was another site that had clothing and food.
Afterward, one officer said he thought somehow they may have gotten wind of what was taking place.
“I was expecting more but it was still eye-opening for me,” McGill said of the number of people they came into contact with. “But this is just one small section of town. They’re in the shadows but I’m not sure the community realizes how many are out there.
“We need to do these more often but our resources are depleted. That’s why it’s important to have that partnership with other agencies in times like this.”
Aside from it being illegal, McGill said there were three main reasons why they were conducting the sweep: Potential fire hazards, since many of the camps have fire pits or barbecues; potential drug use; and health hazards from human waste and other diseases.
Before leaving the police department, the group discussed what they may find in the camps including booby traps designed to alert campers of approaching animals or humans. Two examples of these were found in separate locations along popular pathways.
“We’re not dealing with violent criminals but we still need to be careful,” McGill said to the officers. “We don’t want to make this bigger than it is. The bottom line is, stay safe. I don’t want anyone to get hurt over this.”
When they arrived on the scene, the officers fanned out into two groups. As they approached each camp, they announced themselves and explained what it was they were doing and that it was against the law to camp there. Some individuals apologized while others said they would be on their way.
One woman was arrested for not providing proper information to USFS Officer Mike O’Neil while saying that she would not appear in court for the ticket. The woman, who said her name was Sarah McKeever, told O’Neil that she had been in that location since October. And that when she got there she said the area was “disgusting” and that she made a point to clean it.
Vinnie Scarponi, of the Cottonwood chapter of Catholic Charities, was on hand to provide information to the campers who were homeless, especially those who may be veterans.
“We’re here to help in a variety of ways but they have to want to be helped — we can’t force them,” he said. “As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.
“I’ve only been with this organization for a year but in that time I’ve seen an increase in homeless vets, especially in the Camp Verde and Cottonwood areas. As a veteran myself, I’m all about helping these people and finding out what they need and how we can help. But everyone we talk to is different. Sadly, there are those dealing with substance abuse or mental instability while others actually want to stay homeless and live this lifestyle.”