DALLAS - Citing free speech concerns, the Dallas Police Department is
changing the way it enforces the city’s panhandling ordinances.
longer will Dallas police officers issue panhandling citations to
people soliciting in public areas such as sidewalks. They will take
enforcement action only if they’re violating other laws, such as being
“If it’s a First Amendment right, it’s a First
Amendment right for everybody,” Police Chief U. Renee Hall told WFAA.
She said the city cannot treat the homeless differently than other
groups without risking legal action.
Other cities have found themselves on the losing end of lawsuits over similar issues across the nation.
New Year's Day, police officers received a roll training bulletin
directing that they can take enforcement action for panhandling if
someone attempts to solicit in the public roadway. Charitable
organizations who are authorized to do so by the “local authority” are
exempt, according to the bulletin.
DPD's decision is a clear step
back from its previous aggressive efforts to fight panhandling on the
city's sidewalks in downtown and its entertainment districts.
Philip Kingston, who represents most of the city’s business district
where panhandling is a constant issue, said he was caught off guard last
week when WFAA first reported that police were changing panhandling
“You don't just make a change like that without
consulting council and the public safety committee,” he said. “I feel
like this was a surprise.”
Council members were told in a
closed-door briefing back in September that there were legal concerns.
But Kingston said he and other council members should have been briefed
before changes were actually made.
Police officials said what led
to the confusion was that a couple of commanders jumped the gun when
they sent out emails before the Christmas holiday directing their
officers to stop issuing tickets for panhandling.
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, was critical of the department’s roll out of the changes.
once again taking a tool away from officers and we’re leaving officers
confused about what they can do and what they can’t do and when they can
do it,” he said. “We need specific, clear guidelines about when an
officer can write a citation and under what circumstances they can do
He also said the roll bulletin did not answer the question
about whether officers write citations under ordinances that prohibited
panhandling in certain places such as near gas pumps, ATMS, banks and
outdoor dining areas.
“Is that protected speech or is that
something we can still enforce?” he said. “It wasn’t addressed in the
roll call bulletin or in the memo from the city.”
For years, the
city has been trying to crack down on panhandling. It passed a 2007
ordinance that restricted panhandling in certain areas. In 2014, the
city passed an ordinance that required anyone wanting to solicit within
the City of Dallas to register and obtain a permit. Charitable and
non-profit organizations were exempted.
It all comes as the city
was expected to soon launch an educational initiative called “Give Right
Dallas” to encourage people to give to charitable organizations that
help the homeless rather than to panhandlers. The plan was to designate
re-purposed parking meters in Deep Ellum, the Forest/Abrams area and
Preston Center for people to make donations.
It was slated to
start in December but council members raised concerns over the proposed
$200,000 cost and a lack of emphasis in downtown and South Dallas.
need to get the message that if you’re giving money, you’re creating
the problem,” Kingston says. “This panhandling initiative is not fully
formed so it makes it appear that we’re backing down from enforcement at
the same time we’re treading water with regard to the initiative.”
Either way, it probably won’t make much of a difference to someone like Lamont Lewis.
He is homeless. Deep Ellum is his hangout. He panhandles to feed his habits. He admitted that he does drugs and drinks.
“I dig the rich because I'm poor and when I need some money I gotta come to the rich,” he said.
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