Late Friday night — 11:29 p.m., according to the email time stamp — the city of Dallas handed out its last news dump of the year. Along with the usual weekly detritus was a memo from the Dallas city manager's office about panhandling. The memo appears to be directed at two stories published last week, one by WFAA-TV and one by the Observer, and claims media reports about the Dallas Police Department's panhandling enforcement were inaccurate. Neither outlet's reporting was inaccurate.
On Dec. 28, WFAA's David Goins reported about DPD internal correspondence informing officers that they should no longer write tickets for "solicitation by coercion," the city's official term for aggressive panhandling. The Observer picked up the story, reporting that DPD denied that a "written memo" had been issued regarding panhandling and noting the fact that the City Council hadn't been told about any change in enforcement, according to council member Philip Kingston, a member of the public safety committee.
Friday's memo, included in full at the end of this story, says that "[t]here have been some inaccurate media reports regarding the Dallas Police Department's enforcement of solicitation offenses," before adding that "[t]here has not been an official memorandum or training bulletin issued by the Dallas Police Department instructing officers not to issue citations for solicitation." Attached to the memo was an official DPD training bulletin, stamped Dec. 29, instructing DPD officers that they could write citations for solicitation of occupants of vehicles on a public roadway, something both the city and DPD repeated more than once in response to emailed questions about the enforcement change. But neither mentioned aggressive panhandling or solicitation by coercion.
Over the weekend, longtime Dallas police reporter Tanya Eiserer, a WFAA employee, posted screenshots of the communications on which Goins had reported. In two notes, including one apparently dated Dec. 21, DPD commanders informed their rank-and-file not to write tickets for solicitation by coercion or panhandling near an ATM or gas pump, citing legal concerns.
Shortly after Eiserer made her post, she added a note explaining that, according to Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall, "the inaccuracies were a reference to another media outlet reporting that council had not been met with regarding the issue of panhandling enforcement." That's where the Observer comes in.
In the Observer's follow-up to the WFAA story, Kingston, who represents portions of downtown and Deep Ellum, two of the Dallas neighborhoods hardest hit by panhandling, said he and his council colleagues hadn't received a heads-up from DPD about a change in panhandling enforcement.
"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."
The last time the City Council discussed anything about legal challenges to panhandling enforcement — a hot topic, given a series of constitutional challenges around the country — was Sept. 20, during a closed-to-the-public executive session. While Kingston said he couldn’t discuss what was said in executive session, he reiterated that he wasn’t told about a potential change in enforcement of the panhandling regulations at any point, including at a time near the apparent change in December.
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Dallas' confusion about panhandling comes as bans have been struck down around the country on free speech grounds after a flurry of challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union and homeless advocacy groups. No challenge has been filed to Dallas' anti-panhandling ordinance, which forbids panhandling from sundown to sunup, bans panhandling in popular entertainment districts and bans aggressive panhandling.
Of course, it is possible that the police told the council they were going to stop enforcing the aggressive panhandling law, but Kingston forgot. Or maybe the cops told all the other council members except Kingston. The Observer asked the cops last week via email (we have records!) if they had told the council about any change in policy but didn't get an answer other than the no "official memorandum" bit of legerdemain we reported last week.
But the Observer is more than happy to correct its mistakes if we make them. So let's keep it simple: Chief Hall, were DPD officers at some point citing panhandlers for solicitation by coercion? Were officers then told by someone higher up the chain of command — via memorandum, bulletin, email, text message, carrier pigeon, telepathy or any other method of communication — to stop doing so? Did they stop, and if so, was the City Council, in part or in whole, by any means of communication (see above), informed?