Niceville Police Chief David Popwell said he would prioritize police patrols along the unused land between 3rd Planet Brewery and Publix grocery store after a request by Niceville Councilman Bill Schaetzle at November’s City Council Meeting.
The Councilman told Chief Popwell, the rest of the council, and the audience he had concerns about unhoused people who might live in the wooded area to the south of the Swift Creek neighborhood in the flood plain between the two businesses.
“I recently talked to some of our citizens, and they informed me that [unhoused people] are on the access road,” Schaetzle said, “there could possibly be homeless people living back there, and some of them probably have questionable character. Are there homeless people back there you are trying to displace?”
Chief Popwell responded he and the officers under his command were not trying to displace anyone currently. He told the council having someone removed from private property required the property owner to contact law enforcement to have trespassers removed. “We make contact with them and legally let them know that, hey, you have 24, [to] 72 hours to get off this property,” Chief Popwell said.
Schaetzle told Popwell citizens voiced concerns about walking in the area between 3rd Planet and Publix at night – especially with the recent time change. Unhoused people, he said, “are on that access road. Some people might feel it is unsafe to walk back in that area.”
Chief Popwell added that the department has knowledge of several encampments of unhoused people throughout the Niceville community. He says getting those people to ‘move along’ has some sticky constitutional issues to contend with. “All of their property that is in a tent that I [when unhoused people are moved makes] the city responsible for safeguarding that property until they go to jail. So, the problem is, you can see that eventually you are going to have a lot of [people’s] property. And, I don’t have a place to put that property, unless you want to rent another storage building. We have to maintain it, because it is their legal property.” He went on to tell the council confiscation and destruction of someone’s property while arresting them for trespassing would violate the US Constitution’s fourth amendment.
According to Chief Popwell, Niceville Police will conduct more patrols in the area going forward.
Chief Popwell noted that, aside from the encampment in between Publix, Swift Creek and 3rd Planet, there is another long-standing encampment across State Route 85 from the Mullet Festival Grounds – on Eglin Air Force Base land.
According to Florida Law, a property owner (or someone leasing the property) has to warn a trespasser to leave before the person can be charged with trespassing. There are other aggravating factors, for example if the trespasser has a firearm or other weapon with them – but without those factors, if a person is told to leave a property and doesn’t, they can be found guilty of a misdemeanor.