Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Handling panhandlers

Last week, a letter to the editor in the Lincoln Journal Star, Scared out of Downtown, took the City to task somewhat for the problem of panhandlers plying their trade downtown. In the past three years, panhandlers have settled in along 14th Street, roughly between Bennett Martin Public Library and the University of Nebraska Campus. This has been a huge concern for businesses and for the Children's Museum. They frequently talk to customers who have the same experience related by the letter's author.

Back in the primordial mist of my career as a foot patrolman, panhandling like this would have landed you in jail in a heartbeat. But that all changed with a series of Federal court cases that have basically ruled that panhandling is an exercise of one's First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Lincoln, like most cities, had to change it's ordinance to allow panhandling. It can be regulated, but not outlawed. The same court cases essentially describe the kinds of time, place, and manner regulations that are Constitutional. Thus, Lincoln's municipal ordinance outlaws panhandling at night, or within 20 feet of an ATM, or from people in a sidewalk cafe. Aggressive panhandling (profanity, threats, following a person and making repeated pleas after being turned down, etc.) is also prohibited.

But there are plenty of panhandling opportunities downtown, despite the restrictions, and plenty of people who are willing to give panhandlers a few bucks. The loosening of the law has also caused a proliferation of panhandling at other spots, such as the entrances to large shopping complexes. It is incredibly annoying to many business owners and many citizens, but we're not alone in Lincoln. The same problem plagues cities all over the country, and many police departments and city councils are vexed. Google "panhandling" and click the News link and you'll get the picture.

Here in Lincoln, we try to control the illegal and obnoxious behavior, without infringing on the Constitutional rights of the panhandlers. I've talked to several people who just want us to strong arm these panhandlers out of the City, and could care less about the Constitution or any Federal court cases. That's not how we operate, and we all swore an oath otherwise. So we work with the laws we have.

As of Friday, we had cited or arrested individuals downtown for 1,031 offenses related to this problem, including aggressive panhandling, panhandling in prohibited places, trespassing, and consuming alcohol in public. Our downtown officers work diligently on this issue. Arrests, however, do not solve the underlying problems of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental illness that underlie most of the panhandling.

The best thing anyone can do to reduce the panhandling problem is to give donations to organizations who help deal with these underlying problems, rather than giving money directly to panhandlers. That only encourages the behavior, and is actually a form of enabling in some cases, as the donation goes immediately to the nearest cheap liquor store. Not everyone feels the same way, though, and there are those who oppose efforts to control panhandling. It's a big world, and there are lots of conflicting opinions.

I guess the good news is that you know you're really a city when you've got a problem with downtown panhandling.


Anonymous said...

How about using some of that extra money you got back on the budget for One Way Bus tickets out of town.

LPD256 said...

Tom-In the olden days, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, and vagrancy charges could be applied to the situation on 14th Street. But, alas, in the olden days there were very few chronically homeless people, because those folks were living in institutions that no longer exist. The problem here that citizens are complaining about is that the local homeless folks have moved into our downtown public library where they have clean restrooms, heat, A/C and are not bothered because the citizens are staying away from using the public facility due to their presence. Everyone has their own issues. We have little panhandling in the streets. However, we've had 37 homicides this year, a majority of which are gang-related. We'll trade you our gangsters for your panhandlers anytime you wish.

Anonymous said...

That last sentence is another idiotic statement from the great Tommy boy. Once again, I see you're having trouble focusing on real crime. It sure is a good thing you're not in charge of a big city. True criminals would have a hey day while you worried about typical petty crap.

Anonymous said...

It's too bad that most panhandlers aren't kids, because then you might be able to drive them away with high-frequency sound. Maybe if you could get a couple of those nice, clean-cut Jehovah's Witnesses to show up and evangelize to the tin-cuppers until they ran away screaming, never again to clog your mall entrance again. You might be able to play Schopenauer really loud and repel them with tonal dissonance.

Atticus said...

To Anonymous 4:26, talk about idiotic statements, well you just made one! What real crime is it that you are referring to? All the homicides, bank robberies, drive-by shootings? While we have those crimes in our fair city, the number is quite low. Maybe by worrying about the 'petty crap' we are eliminating an environment that would produce the 'real crime' in greater numbers. Surely someone as wise as you has heard of the 'broken window' theory. Even if you don't subscribe to that theory you have to understand one basic principle of law enforcement: We don't get to pick and choose which laws we enforce! LPD is at the beck and call of ALL the citizens of Lincoln. We are the Field of Dreams of police departments; If you call us, we will come! And we will try to handle the complaint regardless of how petty you may think it is.

Anonymous said...

I panhandle occasionally in the winter to make ends meet. I don't drink and do drugs. My money goes to help pay my bills so I don't become a statistic. Give to places that help people instead of giving to panhandlers. These places and no one else will help me in my situation. So what am I to do? You want to force me into criminal activity just to survive? You just might be the one I victimize. Most of these people would turn to crime to survive. So do u want the crime rate to go up or look at panhandlers? Get real people, panhandlers aren't going away.