Sheriff's Department steps up enforcement on panhandling and loitering
Cracking down on aggressive panhandling, something city officials say “has become disturbing and disruptive” to residents, tourists and businesses, is scheduled to be discussed by the Fort Worth City Council Tuesday.
But for now, at least, a contentious proposal to make it illegal to give panhandlers money is not included.
District 4 Councilman Cary Moon, who requested that provision, said he was told by the city’s attorneys that that section of the ordinance is still be drafted and will come later. Moon said he is pleased with the ordinance changes so far.
“We’ve got to get something out there,” Moon said, adding that the section he wants “is harder to piece together.” Few cities nationwide make it illegal to give panhandlers money, so it’s more challenging to model Fort Worth’s ordinance, he said.
I understand that it seems over-reaching.
Cary Moon, District 4 councilman
“I understand that it seems over-reaching,” but the city does govern other behaviors such as speeding and smoking, that it’s important to make giving money to panhandlers against the law as a way to curb the activity, he said.
As part of its consent agenda, the council will vote Tuesday night to repeal a portion of the city’s ordinance that makes loitering for begging illegal and replacing it with stricter language that regulates aggressive panhandling and solicitation in public places and on private property.
A beggar or panhandler becomes aggressive when they use violent or threatening gestures and continues to solicit a person when they’ve already been told no, according the new ordinance. The beggar or panhandler also cannot touch or block a pedestrian, among other things, the ordinance says.
The new ordinance also sets distance guidelines for when a solicitation becomes an offense. For example, a person can’t beg or panhandle within 20 feet at such places as an automated teller machine, at a parking meter or the entrance to a restaurant, or within 50 feet of a public or private school.
One downtown worker enjoying a noontime salad outdoors Monday said property managers at her office building tell employees to call police if they feel they’re being bothered by a panhandler. She said she doesn’t always agree with approach. Instead, she said she’d rather see the council put more effort into programs addressing homelessness and job training.
“I’m sympathetic and I’ll talk to them,” she said. Sometimes they do tug at your heart, but other times it can be uncomfortable, she admitted. “I don’t like to give them money. But, I don’t think there’s too many that are aggressive.”
An increase in aggressive begging, panhandling or soliciting throughout the city has heightened fear, intimidation, violent conduct and disorder among the public, a staff report said. The new “narrowly tailored” regulations protect citizens, but also a person’s First Amendment right to panhandle.
“Current city ordinances are insufficient to address aggressive panhandling to protect citizens from the fear and intimidation accompanying certain kinds of begging, panhandling or solicitation that have become an unwelcome, overwhelming and dangerous presence in certain parts of the city,” the report said.
District 5 Councilwoman Gyna Bivens, who also has been vocal about the issue, said some of her constituents don’t like the idea of the city issuing tickets to people who give. She also said the city needs to provide residents a phone number to report popular spots for panhandling.
“I’ve been complaining about the matter for more than a year now,” Bivens said. “There are still members of the public who have let me know they are conflicted when it comes to interfering with their giving. They don’t want to be ticketed. That stated, city staff has done a fine job defining aggressive panhandling and identifying locations the city will keep under careful watchful eyes.”
“I’m fine with the ordinance as they have presented. I’m sure we’ll make modifications,” she said.
Since Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn assumed office on Jan. 1, deputies have stepped up patrols around the county buildings in downtown Fort Worth. David McClelland, chief of staff for the sheriff’ office, said the patrols with Segways and a golf cart have reduced the homeless population in the northern part of downtown.
“Prior to taking office, there had been numerous complaints including; panhandling and assaults of jurors and county employees,” McClelland said by email. “We started conducting preventative patrol in partnership with Fort Worth PD. Upon making contact with people in the area we provided them with information about various recourses and assistance available. They have chosen to vacate the area voluntarily, and to date we have made no arrests.”
Staff writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report.