On a particularly sunny day, a young, drab man sits cross-legged on the sidewalk of Broadway and Olive. Leaning against The Starlight Lounge the young man is too focused on lighting his cigarette against a draft to notice another man pacing toward him. Steve Scarborough, tall, clad in a white polo and a bright red baseball hat, means to make his presence known. When the young man finally drags a lit cigarette, Scarborough hovers over him and gestures to rethink his choice in loitering spot.
“That’s about all it takes,” he says.
The gesture marks the first actual interaction on an hour-long visit with the Guides. Normally, even this level of contact is unnecessary. Seeing a Downtown Guide turn onto your corner can find loiterers, beggars and drug-users suddenly putting their best feet forward and mischief turning into child-like denial. Lawbreakers peel for an alley knowing that an open container or wafting marijuana smoke will break ice for a very uncomfortable conversation – and possibly a visit from Eugene Police.
See, these guides don’t just give directions to Voodoo Doughnuts, they’re first responders to the city’s most visible problem: a pervasive homeless and transient population that crowd downtown streets to panhandle at all hours. More than anything, the guides are a presence, a reminder that the free-spirited city still wants its streets clean, safe and inviting for potential customers.
Scarborough has an belt of nonlethal weapons at his disposal. Most of the Downtown Eugene Guides are certified in security, and just like members of the police force, endure classes and training sessions to get proper certification in the use of nonlethal weapons should an incident arise — though it rarely does, according to Scarborough. “We can’t arrest them or anything like that,” Scarborough explains. “We’re not police officers, but we don’t have to be, either. Most the time they’ll see us and take the hint just the same.”
Known throughout the neighborhood as “red hats” the guides are an extension of Downtown Eugene Incorporated. In 1988, Eugene businesses downtown banded together to form Downtown Eugene Incorporated, to better serve their business interests and create as welcoming an environment as possible for potential customers in the area. The guides were originally conceived as literal guides, similar to ambassador programs seen in many cities like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon. Though their initial duties were still to be the eyes and ears of business owners, the amount of time red hats spend patrolling for trouble has ebbed and flowed over the years, depending on the state of Eugene police’s checkbook. In times when the Eugene police have been understaffed, red hats have tried to step up. “No one can measure how much crime they deter, and they make our jobs a lot easier,” said Darwin Terry, a bicycle patrolman for Eugene police.
According to Sue Prichard, a board member of DEI, the collective once paid the partial salary of an officer to be posted downtown and work alongside the guides when budgets were thin. This is similar to the Eugene police substation on 13th and Alder whose lone officer works with campus security and whose salary is paid a third of by the University.
Guides patrol downtown from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.. They carry mace instead of guns, and are not law enforcement, so they cannot legally arrest anybody or charge them for any particular crime. However, they have a direct line to the Eugene police department, who have begun ramping up their presence in downtown following a recent influx of budget. “A lot of the time, businesses will call red hats first, before they call us,” says Tonee Webber, Downtown Public Safety Program Manager for the Eugene police. “They do have the ability to hold someone until we show up.” More often than not, it seems, that a stern glare from a red hat and the promise of a bicycle cop wheeling up right behind him is enough of a deterrent.
The relationship between the local law and the red hats has only gotten stronger in recent months. Eugene police uprooted their base of operations from City Hall on 7th and Pearl to across the Willamette River, into a $17.2 million dollar headquarters on Country Club Road. Fearing that the move would cause response times to lag, and possibly provoke more trouble downtown, the Eugene police accepted a partnership with Lane Community College to lease a 2,700 square foot office space to house a rotating patrol of bicycle cops, who work closely with the red hats. All of this is part of a concerted effort, on multiple fronts, to protect downtown business and their customers.
Public safety is such an integral part of the red hats jobs that they offer escorts from businesses and to a customer’s car during the darker time of the year. The red hats also supervise clean teams, which are crews of people serving out community service through the Eugene municipal courts, in lieu of fines. Carrie Russo of the Eugene Chamber of Commerce says that the clean teams not only benefit downtown’s image, but that members of the crews also come away feeling more connected to the neighborhood. “More than twice over the past year, people have written us letters when they’re done with their community service,” Russo says. “saying they’re happy to have had the opportunity to work off their fines, and at the same time, gain an appreciation for downtown.”