Fayetteville City Council’s hopes for recommended changes to the local panhandling ordinance have been delayed again. City Attorney Karen MacDonald asked that the item be removed from council’s February work session agenda. She said she would try to have her long-awaited report ready in March. Last fall, City Manager Doug Hewett said the administration would research the local ordinance and report back with some ideas. That was in October.
McDonald has been meeting with Police Chief Gina Hawkins since then but twice has asked council for delays as to her findings.
“For one thing, work session agendas have been full recently,” she said.
The existing ordinance makes it illegal for panhandlers to beg anywhere in the city after dark. It prohibits panhandling altogether in the downtown area, along busy roadways and within 50 feet of ATMs and outdoor dining areas. Council members are especially concerned about routine begging on highway medians and at street corners.
One problem is that the law is rarely enforced and hardly ever prosecuted in the courts.
“Panhandlers are having a chilling effect on commerce,” said Councilman Jim Arp. “We need more aggressive enforcement.”
He noted that panhandling is prohibited in the downtown area, and a police officer who walks a foot post attempts to shoo them off.
But, “it’s getting worse,” said Councilman Larry Wright.
Police officials have said they are kept busy on patrol and that detaining panhandlers takes them off their beats for hours at a time.
“Most researchers and practitioners seem to agree that the enforcement of laws prohibiting panhandling plays only a part in controlling the problem,” said The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. “Public education to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers and adequate social services for panhandlers are essential components of an effective and comprehensive response,” it concluded.
Before the November election, two members of city council suggested that people who give money to panhandlers should be charged.
“Problem-oriented policing places a high value on new responses that are preventive, that are not dependent on the use of the criminal justice system and that engage other public agencies, said Herman Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. He was the architect of the concept.
“As courts strike down laws that authorize police to regulate public disorder, and as police are less inclined to enforce such laws, panhandling flourishes,” noted the Center for Problem Oriented Policing’s Michael Scott.
MacDonald said she is studying the ways other North Carolina cities are dealing with panhandling and street people in general. Officials elsewhere have found that the more specific panhandling ordinances are, the more likely they can withstand court tests.
But, enforcement of local laws alone will not solve the problem. If MacDonald stays on schedule, she will make her recommendations to city council March 5.