City to criminalize begging, directs cops to do social work among poor

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Landon Howard is shushed by Phil Noblett, city attorney, because critics of the panhandling rule have already had their turn to be heard and will not be heard from further. With him are protesters Beth Foster and Jeannie Hacker-Cerulean.

Police chief David Roddy, center, is empowered under a proposed ordinance to arrest beggars. Worried about whether a proposed rule will hurt street musicians and buskers are, from left, Stratton Tingle and Jack Holland. (Photo David Tulis)

City council with two dissents approves on first reading a ban on panhandling it intends to stretch across all corners of the city, not just impose at tourist hotspots.

The panel is confident in the power of policing to harass beggars with arrest but also direct individuals to social services and temporary support.

By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio

Darrin Ledford votes yes because he is concerned about the “aggressive component to this that borders on bullying. There are people being harassed in all our districts.”

He has little fear that the ordinance will fill the jail with homeless people entrapped by cops and F$50 fines they cannot pay.

“Getting people services that they need is our complete desire,” Mr. Ledford says. “This enables us a point of contact which we talked about last week, allowing our officers a point of contact at which they can reach out to people who desperately need help, and get them the services that they need.”

Mr. Ledford says a panhandler in his district was arrested last week at the very hour city council was debating the issue, a man who was making himself a “tremendous nuisance, going around to several places, and [he] was arrested for *** aggressive panhandling.”

The bill interferes with private speech across the whole city corporation.

“It’s good for the city because it takes what is already established in the central business district,” he said, “and with the growing city, the growing needs of the city — it’s taking it citywide.”

‘Creating barriers’

Dissenting council member Jerry Mitchell is skeptical the city knows enough about panhandling to make it a crisis requiring a nine-page bill. “I’m not a believer in passing laws for passing laws,” he says. “I’m a big believer in eliminating laws for the sake of eliminating laws, if you can do it.”

Also saying no is new council member Demetrus Coonrod, who rejects the bill for “creating barriers, and our mission as a city is to remove barriers.”

Mr. Mitchell says one panhandler has unpaid jail fines totaling F$1,000 and has been in court many times. “And you know what? It’s a mental health issue. It’s not going to change because of this at all. [The ordinance] is not going to solve anything.”

Is it dangerous to expect cops to be social workers? Cops, he says, have a social work component. But “I’m just not about putting people in jail, and I believe we train  our officers up pretty well to be able to try to help, and I believe we are community police oriented and I think that’s part of their job. And I think they openly accept that” and most cops would rather help a person than arrest him.

“We talk about poverty, we talk about disparity, we talk about things that supposedly matter to us. And, frankly speaking, we do very little about it. But we’re willing to create laws that won’t help a thing.”

But Mr. Mitchell says he is not one to be hoodwinked by beggers who’ve gone pro.

“I don’t think we have a good handle on how many panhandlers are aggressive, and are actually cheating the system, so to speak. Let’s face it. Panhandling is a national profession now. There should be a department of labor job code on it now because any city you go to in the country they’re doing it. And you know we should be collecting taxes on it, probably, because they do it so much.”

The bill is divisive, even hateful, Mrs. Coonrod says. “I don’t want anybody to be cited to court and possibly be given a fine, and that just messing up their life. They’re already having a hard time. And like I say, we all are a paycheck away from being on that corner as well. So sometimes we gotta try to think how can we actually help people and get them the resources and tools as needed for them to begin to thrive instead of creating another barrier to hold them down?”

Howitzer upon anthill

The city council is not averse to using state power to regulate private conduct. It elects to do so against homeowners who use the Internet to rent out their houses to short-term vacationers via Airbnb and other networks. That ordinance is plainly unconstitutional because it creates an arbitrary and capricious distinction between like parties via a “rental district,” which arbitrarily allows some to enjoy the free market while barring others.

Critic Landon Howard got in edgewise citations to court opinions indicating the ban on panhandling is unconstitutional. But it’s not immediately clear how gross are its proposed violations of First Amendment speech rights, which it noisily insists it does not offend. 

The panhandling ban is like using a 105mm howitzer to level an ant hill. As Mr. Mitchell says, it is based on minimal reports of police encounters with panhandlers and a desire to control obnoxious forms of human interaction by force.

The bill justifies itself by reporting 457 police encounters over a 3⅓ year period ending March 14, a span of 1,168 days. That’s one encounter every 2½ days in a city with a population of 178,000 people in a metropolitan statistical area of roughly 550,000 people. That’s a lot of people residing here, and thousands more every week here as tourists or visiting on business — and not many panhandler interventions.

The number of actual panhandling incidents is far fewer than the 457 total. The incidents in the tally are not exclusively begging or solicitation encounters. They involve people whom police identify as panhandlers, but the figure includes incidents of trespassing, drug violations, disorderly conduct, drunkenness, assault and suicide attempts.

Dividing the number of encounters with the city population, it’s fair to suggest that one person in 775 has an encounter with a beggar of some kind over the 3½-year period. That would be one person out of every 2,300 people who has such an encounter in a single year, and those encounters may not include a solicitation for coin at all.

Complaints

Much of the opposition to the nine-page bill comes from the left wing of Christianity, that part favoring state welfare, socialism, abortion, gay marriage and state-centered nannyism. In its outcry against the bill, it has quoted scripture’s requirement for mercy upon the poor and warns against what its members call state criminalization of poverty. Its more flamboyant backers from Mercy Junction Peace & Justice Center are absent, as the time for public comment and interaction has passed.

Neither the reformed church nor the mainline evangelical part of Christianity in Chattanooga takes any interest in the prohibition initially discussed in council by police chief David Roddy. Erstwhile conservatives and constitution-minded elected officials such as Mr. Ledford are wholly on board the bill because of its good intentions.

Not everyone has gotten word that public comment is no longer allowed. City attorney Phil Noblett shushes Joel Willis and Mr.  Howard, citing the rule for the public comment period that only non-agenda items may be argued from the microphone.

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