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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.
Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.
This Wednesday, April 7th at 9:30 am, the City Council’s Public Safety & Education Committee will discuss and possibly vote on Councilmember Tim Burgess’s Aggressive Solicitation Council Bill #116807.
Councilmember Burgess has been working on this legislation for the past 7 months. His Committee reviewed the first draft on March 17th. He is expecting to vote the most current draft out of his committee this Wednesday.
Description of Legislation
The following is a summarized description of the core of what the legislation does. It is taken from the most recent draft version. As of Monday, the most recent version was not yet available online. It will be on the Committees and Agendas page soon.
The legislation defines aggressive solicitation as engaging in intimidating conduct towards another person in a public place when such conduct is accompanied by an act of solicitation. All of the following conduct, but not limited to these, would be aggressive when it makes a reasonable person fearful or feel compelled to give money or another item of value:
- Intentionally blocking or interfering with a person so as to cause that person to take evasive action to avoid physical contact
- Intentionally using threatening or aggressive physical gestures or profane or abusive language while making a solicitation
- Repeatedly soliciting a person who has given a negative response to a solicitation
- Providing an unrequested service without consent to a person
- Soliciting someone using an ATM or parking pay station
Under the ordinance, aggressive solicitation becomes a civil infraction and includes a $50 fine. However if the fine is not paid or a court appearance is missed (which is a likely scenario for a homeless person who is panhandling) a bench warrant is issued, converting the violation to a criminal charge. Civil infractions have a lower burden of proof than criminal violation. The effect would be to criminalize a civil infraction.
Why the Need for the Legislation
Councilmember Burgess argues that aggressive solicitation is a serious public safety threat to the economic vitality of Seattle, particularly our downtown core; and, that prohibiting aggressive solicitation is necessary and balances individual rights and public interest. All forms of aggressive solicitation would be addressed, not just panhandling, and, in fact, panhandling is specifically called out in the legislation as a legal activity.
Reference to a 2009 survey of residents in the greater downtown area is used to support the legislation. It found that 66% were concerned about aggressive solicitation with a nearly equal percentage (63%) of respondents concerned about all panhandling, indicating that respondents are concerned about panhandling, whether aggressive or not. And though the study says that “almost all residents continue to feel safe walking downtown during the day” and “perceptions of nighttime safety are stable,” a separate survey from last year found that 23% of all Seattle residents avoid downtown because of fear of crime or personal safety. Finally the study shows that the Central business district saw an improvement in the area of aggressive panhandlers with 57% concerned in 2007 and only 32% concerned in 2009. On the other hand, major crimes in South Lake Union and the downtown core had increased 22% from 2008 to 2009.
Aside from these statistics a number of downtown residents and workers have contacted the Council complaining about panhandling. Comments from the Council’s public hearing included the following: panhandling is out of control; uncivil behavior will not be tolerated; Aggressive panhandling must be addressed; the Council must protect the right of people to come to downtown without fear; bad behavior must be dealt with; the problem is getting worse.
What Are the Objections
The basic objection to this legislation is that it can be used primarily against the poor and that the issue of aggressive behavior is already addressed under the current laws and that this proposed law will waste scarce public resources without addressing the reasons people panhandle. Further concerns are that individuals cited under the proposed law will be unable to pay the fine, “leading to more vulnerable people – including many people of color, the poor, and the mentally ill-ending up behind bars.” (ACLU-WA).
Aggressive panhandlers are regularly convicted under Seattle’s current law. Nearly 80% of those charged under the existing law against aggressive panhandling in the last ten years have received a conviction of some kind; more than half of the defendants plead guilty to aggressive panhandling.
A legal analysis of the 31 emails included as attachment C to the ordinance, and forming the basis of the need for this ordinance, indicate that the new law would not address their concerns or that the existing law would be applicable. The most common complaint in the 31 emails reviewed is discomfort at the number of panhandlers, which is a legal activity and would not be addressed by this legislation.
The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) released a list of the 27 of the most prominent panhandlers, as supporting evidence of the need for stopping aggressive panhandling; however, only 3 of them were labeled as aggressive. The DSA and many of the others testifying at the Council’s public hearing, were more concerned about the amount of panhandling and the feeling of discomfort or fear that many have in being approached by panhandlers. The legislation will not reduce the amount of panhandling and trying to legislate away feelings of discomfort and fear is a difficult, if not impossible, task without being arbitrary in its application; hence the concern that the poor will most likely be singled out.
For this reason Seattle’s Human Rights Commission overwhelmingly voted, nine to one, to reject this legislation. A similar anti-panhandling law in San Francisco shows that the majority of those cited are people of color and yet 80% of those cases were dismissed for one reason or another, resulting in huge administrative and court costs.
The three sets of statistics used to support this legislation weave an unspoken and unproven link between panhandling and crime downtown. That seems to be the context for citing those avoiding downtown because of fear of crime or personal safety – what links those concerns with panhandling? Major crime has gone up, but arrests for aggressive behavior associated with panhandling have gone down during this same period. Also while the survey cited shows a large percentage of people are concerned about aggressive panhandling, the examples provided the Council are few.
Councilmember Burgess has rightly said that “The problems on our streets are complex and require a continuum of response.” Consequently, while this is the only legislation to come forward, he has spoken to the need to return fixed-beat police foot patrols in specific areas, expand the scope and improve coordination of street outreach offering support services to homeless individuals, and increase housing capacity combined with support services for the homeless and individuals struggling with mental health and/or chemical dependency challenges. As Burgess notes, “None of these proposals by itself is the solution, but taken together they will help improve the quality of life for everyone on our streets.”
The Seattle Times Editorial Board has also endorsed this approach: “Burgess’s legislation alone won’t do the job. Appropriately, it fits into a larger continuum of responses, including budget proposals later this year to return foot patrols to more areas.” And Downtown Seattle Association President Kate Joncas has testified in support of funding human services as part of a comprehensive approach that is needed to address uncivil behavior.
Last week the City’s Human Services Department (HSD) reviewed current outreach and engagement services to people who are homeless. Specifically, HSC looked at the coordination of services among human services agencies and the criminal justice system and researched best practices from different outreach models around the country. The Council still needs to analyze their report and act on their recommendations. Additionally, in providing more housing for the homeless and those with mental health and chemical dependency needs, the City Council will soon adopt the Housing Levy’s Administration and Finance Plan that will ensure continued development of more housing with support services.
While the Police Department has announced that it will shift some of the bike patrol officers downtown to walk their beats, they are not increasing the number of offers on patrol out of their cars; therefore, the area covered may actually be reduced, not increased.
The Council, and the public as well, needs to define the problem we are trying to address and develop the proper tools to resolve it. Is it aggressive behavior or is it panhandling that concerns us? As the statistics show, there are laws, currently being enforced, that deal with aggressive behavior. Perhaps these existing laws need to be tightened up but, still that won’t change the fact that the overwhelming concern is with all panhandling because it is so easily identifiable and unfortunately observable on our streets.
Certainly there are some aggressive panhandlers and they must be dealt with. But the proposed law was always presented as part of a package approach to the problem of making our streets safer for everyone, including the homeless. So why abandon that approach now? Let’s keep the original intent of rolling out a complete package and not piecemeal our legislation.
The most outspoken advocates for this legislation have argued that the city must also address our increased police and human services needs. Let’s do that as well. Since this legislation is only a part of the solution, and it is acknowledged by all that support it that the law by itself will not resolve the problem we are trying to address, we need to link it to the other parts of the package – now.
Consequently, I’m proposing two “Sunrise Amendments” to the legislation that say that the legislation will be enacted once funding has been made available and applied to 1) deploying additional police officers for beat patrols (without redeploying our existing bike patrols) and 2) improving outreach services to homeless people as identified in the HSD report to the City Council.
These amendments are needed for providing a well thought out comprehensive approach that has always been at the heart of the proposal to provide safe streets for all. Otherwise, if the legislation were to go forward without these amendments, the City will be offering only a false sense of increased security against crime without a longer term solution to reducing the need for panhandling on our streets.
COUNCIL MEMBERS & MAYOR’S EMAIL ADDRESSES
Citizens are directed to the following website to complete a form to send an email to the Mayor’s Office. http://www.cityofseattle.net/mayor/citizen_response.htm