As the Dallas City Council continues to battle over its newest plan to address panhandling in areas of the city with the most foot traffic, the Dallas Police Department is consulting with the city attorney's office about which of the city's panhandling ordinances can still be enforced after constitutional challenges to similar laws around the country.
WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reported Tuesday night that a recent DPD internal memo directs officers to stop writing tickets for "solicitation by coercion," or aggressive panhandling, because of ongoing legal concerns.
According to identical statements provided to the Observer on Tuesday by the city of Dallas and DPD, the police department is still enforcing a city ordinance that prohibits soliciting on a public roadway and is in ongoing discussions with the city attorney about the rest of the panhandling ordinance. In response to follow-up questions from the Observer about the memo and aggressive panhandling specifically, DPD said that "officers are still writing citations for panhandling while awaiting the city attorney’s recommendation on which solicitation laws are best used for prosecution. No written memo has been issued on this matter."
Neither the city nor the police department mentioned aggressive panhandling in its statement despite specific questions from the Observer about the nature of the advice the department is seeking from the city attorney. DPD did not answer follow-up questions about whether the department was making arrests for aggressive panhandling and whether the City Council was made aware of a memo before it went to into effect.
Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston told the Observer on Wednesday that he was unaware of a memo until WFAA reporter David Goins read it to him earlier this week. Goins did not respond to a request for comment.
"I'm disturbed that there may have been an internal policy change without any notification to council," Kingston said. "This is a tool that's been used to try to help quell fears among downtown residents about what they see as out-of-control panhandling."
Kingston, who represents portions of downtown and Deep Ellum, says he believes panhandling in both areas will increase if police aren't arresting aggressive panhandlers.
"If you couple that with city staff's extremely slow response to creating a panhandling initiative, it looks like City Hall isn't just not doing anything, they're going backwards," Kingston said. "It seems like we're just in drift, and I guess on enforcement, we're going backwards."
Last month, city staff proposed a program to the council called Give Right, which would encourage to give their cash to homeless aid organizations, rather than panhandlers, through the use of strategically placed signs and donation-taking parking meters. The Dallas City Council's Public Safety Committee panned the proposal, arguing that it failed to target the areas of the city that needed it most and didn't do enough to educate the public about the dangers of panhandling.
Cutting back on arresting aggressive panhandlers would end a policy that started about two years ago. In February 2016, DPD announced that it would begin arresting aggressive panhandlers rather than issuing citations, the previous department policy, in response to downtown residents with safety concerns.
"We have heard these concerns from our stakeholders in the [central business district] area and the surrounding areas, and we are certainly addressing their concerns," DPD Deputy Chief Gary Tittle said at the time.
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With the crackdown, the Observer's Eric Nicholson wrote, the city opened itself up to lawsuits from panhandlers who'd been arrested, thanks to an ongoing legal shift that's led to classification of panhandling as free speech.
"It used to be that, before Reed v. Gilbert [an Arizona case that slapped an Arizona town down for banning a church from posting temporary directional signs while allowing political signs of the same size], blanket bans were unconstitutional, but more nuanced, aggressive panhandling ones, depending on the wording, depending on what was at issue, those were making it through," Eric Tars, senior counsel at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty told the Observer in 2016. "Since Reed, even the aggressive panhandling ones have been thrown out."
Dallas City Attorney Larry Casto did not return a request for comment.
The City Council is expected revisit the Give Right program in January.