Police foot patrols, mental health likely to be part of discussion regarding aggressive downtown panhandling
As city leaders prepare to discuss concerns that downtown panhandlers have become more numerous and aggressive toward visitors, both police and mental health resources will likely be part of the discussion.
Some commissioners think that the Lawrence police department should potentially bring back downtown foot patrols to help deter panhandling, but others think to truly address the complex issue of homelessness and panhandling will take more.
Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who was elected in 2015, said people have been talking about downtown panhandling being an issue as long as he’s been on the commission. He said he couldn’t say whether homelessness and panhandling downtown have gotten worse, as some downtown business owners have said, but that just the perception could harm businesses.
“I think people perceive it as a safety issue and as a result it becomes a very real economic issue,” Herbert said. “Unfortunately, we are living in a time right now where it’s already incredibly difficult to make brick and mortar retail successful, and one of the conversations we always hear when we’re campaigning and whatnot is, ‘What are you going to do to help preserve downtown Lawrence?'”
The behavior of panhandlers
At the commission’s last meeting, Downtown Lawrence Inc. Executive Director Sally Zogry asked the city to create a stricter ordinance to restrict panhandling downtown. Zogry said that in the last several years, she’s heard from downtown business owners and visitors that an increasing number of transients and aggressive panhandlers are negatively affecting the downtown, and several downtown businesses agreed that the number of homeless people and panhandlers downtown is making some visitors uncomfortable. Some also reported experiencing aggressive or harassing behavior.
The commission asked that city management look into the issue following the meeting, and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said staff will be meeting with representatives for downtown and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. She said those discussions would dive into the issues a bit more and include possible solutions.
“So I’m waiting for staff to take a look at it and have these conversations and give us an idea of what it is and whether or not we need to do anything about it,” Larsen said. “Because I do think there are some mental health issues involved with it potentially, and so we definitely need to get somebody like Bert Nash in there to look at it.”
Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, said she does know someone personally who was struck by a panhandler and that she thinks there is certainly trepidation about allowing kids downtown by themselves. While Ananda said she doesn’t know that a stronger ordinance is necessarily the answer, she’s definitely open to doing something to address the issue.
“It sounds like there are some folks who definitely need some kind of assistance or intervention,” Ananda said. “What we have been doing has not been working if things have not changed.”
The current ordinance
Currently, the city bans “aggressive panhandling,” making it illegal for a panhandler to follow, touch or block the path of someone when asking for money, repeatedly ask after someone refuses, or make any threatening statement or gesture. The ordinance does not ban people from asking for money or soliciting donations by holding a sign or container. In 2008, the city discussed banning all forms of panhandling but ultimately did not because of concerns that the city could be sued for violating freedom of expression rights.
Though some claim the problem has gotten worse, citations for aggressive panhandling are on track to decrease from last year.
In 2017, the police department issued 10 citations for aggressive panhandling and has issued only three such citations so far this year, according to information provided by the Lawrence Police Department.
However, Officer Derrick Smith said in an email to the Journal-World that citations for aggressive panhandling do not reflect the number of complaints received. He said the police department receives a lot of complaints about panhandling, but the number of complaints isn’t specifically tracked. He noted that individuals’ perceptions of what constitutes aggressive panhandling do not always meet the standards set in the city ordinance.
Currently, the police department does not actively enforce the aggressive panhandling ordinance. Smith said that in the past the department has assigned officers to conduct foot patrols in areas where aggressive panhandling has been reported. He said the police department has been seeking funding over the last year for additional positions, but that currently staffing levels do not allow for resources to be dedicated to that assignment.
“Therefore, any time this ordinance is being violated, we rely on and encourage citizens to contact the police department,” Smith said.
Herbert said he’s heard concerns from some about panhandlers following people and yelling things if not given money, and he said that’s the behavior the city needs to stop. Herbert said the city needs to be careful about not creating ordinances that criminalize poverty or violate free speech, but that he thinks a greater presence of police foot patrols downtown may help with the more aggressive forms of panhandling.
“The first time a visitor to downtown Lawrence is walking downtown and gets accosted by somebody, that’s going to be the last time they come to downtown Lawrence,” Herbert said. “So while we certainly have to protect people’s First Amendment rights and freedom of speech, we also have to protect people’s rights to not be accosted and harassed every time they walk down a sidewalk.”
Larsen said anytime a group or resident comes to the commission with what they believe to be an issue, that she takes it seriously and wants to look at it more closely. She said she thinks the city should potentially look at bringing back downtown foot patrols by police, but that it would need further evaluation and would depend on the resources available.
“I think that it’s not a bad idea to have some level of presence by the police, if the staffing is available and the resources are available,” Larsen said. “And we address it just like we would any other potential safety problem throughout the city.”
Ananda said that she wants to better understand the issue and would like to know if issues with panhandlers have actually been getting worse, or whether that is only a perception. Ananda said she tends to look at the big picture, and that what the city decides to do about the panhandling and homelessness in the community depends on what the ultimate goal is.
“Essentially, are we looking to move them somewhere else or to address the problem?” Ananda said. “Because if we actually want to address the problem, then that’s going to take a lot more than enforcing an ordinance or having more law enforcement presence. It’s going to take a much deeper dive into the origins of why folks are there in the first place.”