Screw Tickets. Dallas Is Taking Aggressive Panhandlers Straight to Jail.

Darryl Davis is something of a celebrity in downtown Dallas. He's been roaming the streets for years, hounding passersby for money with an intensity and tenacity that other neighborhood panhandlers can't or won't muster. In the past nine months, he's been ticketed five times for panhandling, according to municipal court records, despite notoriously lax enforcement of the ordinance by police. Downtown residents unhesitatingly identify him as the most aggressive beggar they come across. So do yellow-jacketed members of the Downtown Safety Patrol, who respond to his picture with a knowing groan and some variation of "I hate that guy!"

It was fitting, then, that Davis was reportedly the first offender nabbed as part of of the Dallas Police Department's brand-new panhandling crackdown. At 11:27 a.m. on Monday, two-and-a-half hours before DPD officially announced the crackdown at a press conference, Davis was booked into jail on a charge of "solicitation by coercion," Dallas' legal term-of-art for panhandling.

People don't typically go to jail for such offenses, at least not until they've missed a court date or two. Panhandling is a class C misdemeanor, the equivalent of a speeding ticket. But as part of the panhandling crackdown, DPD has indefinitely suspended normal protocol and will be hauling offenders straight to the Lew Sterrett Justice Center. "We will be placing them in jail," Deputy Chief Gary Tittle explained at the press conference. "It will not be just simply a citation."

The crackdown is the latest sign of the grassroots political clout of downtown residents, who called for a stronger police response in the wake of several robberies in and around downtown, most notably a violent Main Street carjacking that left the 37-year-old victim bruised and bloodied. Several months ago, similar pressure prompted DPD to put a round-the-clock presence downtown, with the addition of a first watch

"We have heard these concerns from our stakeholders in the CBD area and the surrounding areas, and we are certainly addressing their concerns," Tittle said.

For now, Tittle says, the crackdown is focusing exclusively on "that aggressive panhandler." He defined the target as "the one approaching an individual demanding money, asking for money, impeding their walkway on the sidewalks, getting out into the street, on the curbs, moving out into the highway from the shoulder of the highway — things that are dangerous for the public; things that are dangerous for the pedestrians." Officers, including some "who may not be in uniform" will be watching 16 hours a day, seven days a week. An end date has yet to be determined.

The success of the campaign depends on how effective the additional jail trips prove in changing the behavior of habitual offenders. For Davis, at least, this seems a dubious assumption. He cycles in and out of jail regularly, with no apparent impact on his habits. Such cases "will be a challenge for us, but we hope to address that challenge with repetitive enforcement," he says.

Tanya Ragan, the Farmers Market advocate who has led the push for increased enforcement, was pleased with the crackdown, though hardly exultant. "It's sad," she said of Davis' arrest. He's an annoyance to downtown residents, but he also represents an abject societal failure to care for the poor and mentally ill. "He needs help," Ragan says. "He doesn't need five dollars to keep him on the street."

Ragan, though, isn't out to fix any intractable social problems; she's merely out to improve her neighborhood, which to her means moving The Bridge outside of downtown and expanding the crackdown on quality of life issues like panhandling. "It's got to be a tough love approach. It's going to take zero tolerance sort of like they're doing with this panhandling initiative."