It’s the middle of the day and Caroline Cummings walks through downtown Eugene. She passes a group of men sitting on the sidewalk. As she approaches, they begin saying sexually explicit comments to her. The men’s dogs start to circle her. Cummings usually pretends to be on her phone to avoid this type of confrontation, but this time she can’t get past. She feels nervous, scared and harassed. Cummings says incidents like this are commonplace downtown.
“I’m getting five men surrounding me with dogs, and they’re literally within my arm’s reach and saying ridiculous sexual comments to me,” Cummings said. “That feels absolutely horrific.”
Many people have similar stories of confrontations downtown. Cummings was one of 34 people who used the public comment section of a city council meeting last month to urge the council to take action on public safety. Many community members were women who, like Cummings, have experienced sexual harassment downtown.
“I now walk to my car through an alley instead of main streets because I don’t want to cross Kesey Square,” Jenny Bennett said at the meeting. “That alley gives me a false illusion of safety.”
Crime in the downtown area has steadily increased since 2013. The police received 10,880 Calls for Service from the downtown area in 2013; 13,789 in 2014; 14,687 in 2015; and 15,007 in 2016, according to Eugene Police Department records. Reports of harassment, assault and menacing generally stayed constant until last year, when harassment reports increased by 54 percent between 2015 and 2016. Menacing reports increased by 57 percent and assault reports increased by 15 percent.
Eugene councilors recently passed a ban on dogs downtown. The ban, which went into effect on April 10, was designed to prevent experiences like Cummings’. The ban will expire in November unless it is extended by another vote. Council members cited an increase in incidents involving aggressive dogs as the reason behind the ban.
Police received seven reports of vicious or biting dogs in 2016. The number has increased only slightly over the past four years. There were four in 2013, five in 2014 and eight in 2015, according to EPD records.
Some council members thought the ban was an attempt to exclude transients and homeless from downtown. The councilors who passed the ban said it only targets unsafe habits downtown.
“There’s a whole bunch of folks all clustered [downtown], and if you have several of them with dogs, then it’s inherently dangerous,” Councilor Mike Clark said at the work session in which the ban was passed.
Clark voted to pass the ban, along with five other council members. Two opposed it. Clark believed it was a small step in the right direction for a safer downtown.
Violating the dog ban is not a jailable offense. Officers can issue $100 fines and judges can increase that to $250.
Other laws that indirectly address harassment issues downtown include an anti-camping law, Eugene city code 4.815, and an anti-loitering law, city code 4.707(2).