Lawrence city commissioners Tuesday vowed to do more than just talk about ways to curb what merchants say is a growing panhandling problem downtown.
Commissioners ordered City Manager David Corliss to come up with ideas for immediately increasing the frequency of police foot patrols in the downtown area, and also told city staff to thoroughly research just how tough the city could be in writing a panhandling ban without violating the Constitution.
“But we have to remember an ordinance is only as good as the paper it is written on,” Amyx said. “The truth of the matter is, we have to have enforcement.”
Commissioners heard from about six downtown merchants who said customers are becoming increasingly frustrated, or in some cases frightened, by people who beg for money. Peter Zacharias, a longtime jewelry merchant downtown, said that two women on Tuesday morning took refuge in his shop after a panhandler became aggressive. Aggressive panhandling already is illegal in the city, but by the time police were able to arrive on the scene, the panhandler was gone.
“The ladies didn’t end up going to the store,” Zacharias said. “They said they were going back to Johnson County and never coming back. We deal with that every day.”
But commissioners also were warned to tread cautiously with creating an outright ban on all types of panhandling downtown. The executive director of the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said he called some city commissioners before the meeting to warn them that any ban that prohibits all types of panhandling would draw a sharp response from the ACLU on the grounds that it was an illegal restriction of free speech.
City Commissioner Aron Cromwell has advocated for an ordinance that would ban active and passive panhandling, such as holding up a sign to ask for money.
“To have freedom of speech, sometimes you have to put up with speech you really don’t want to hear,” said Dan Winter, the ACLU’s executive director for Kansas and western Missouri.