Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua was the only one to vote against the ordinance. Go figure. Bazaldua, the guy who tried to pass an ordinance to get DPD to stop arresting and citing people for low-level marijuana possession because he thinks police have better things to do, thinks they also have better things to do than keeping people off medians.
He said the new measure is contradictory to the city’s efforts to deprioritize low-level offenses.
“Not only is it contradicting; it’s also counterproductive and will more than likely result in even more discriminatory enforcement than we saw with marijuana,” Bazaldua said by text Thursday afternoon. “It was definitely taking steps backwards for our city, and I believe it to be regressive to work we were doing in the other direction.”
The idea behind the ordinance is that it’s unsafe for people to stand on medians because they may be struck by a vehicle. But do you know who else stands on medians? Panhandlers. And the city doesn’t like them. That said, they can’t just outright ban panhandling because that would be against the law. Courts have ruled that asking for help (such as money) is protected speech under the First Amendment.
So rather than come up with an ordinance to directly get rid of all of the panhandlers, Dallas created a roundabout way to potentially put a dent in their numbers. That roundabout way is the no-standing-on-medians ordinance. The Oklahoma City Council passed a similar ordinance in 2015 as a public safety measure for pedestrians, and later got sued for it by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma. The ACLU won the case, and Oklahoma City was ordered to cough up over $1 million in legal fees, according to the daily newspaper The Oklahoman.
Staffers with the city attorney’s office explained during meetings on the ordinance that as long as it’s applied across the board, there shouldn’t be much standing for legal challenges. But will it be enforced across the board? It’s hard to say for sure, given some of the comments shared by DPD and the Dallas City Marshal’s Office at this week’s City Council meeting.
As reported by The Dallas Morning News, DPD Chief Eddie Garcia said the ordinance would be a low priority for his officers. “Obviously, we can enforce. We would use discretion whenever this would occur,” Garcia said at the meeting. “But really, the reality of it is that it would not necessarily be our primary focus with our other priorities in the city that we need to focus on.”
“Not only is it contradicting, it’s also counterproductive and will more than likely result in even more discriminatory enforcement than we saw with marijuana." – Adam Bazaldua, Dallas City Council
Interim City Marshal David Pughes said his officers wouldn’t be patrolling medians to enforce the new ordinance, and that people who get stuck on a median as they’re trying to cross the street wouldn’t get a citation.
Instead, enforcement is most likely to occur when marshals assist City Homeless Solutions and Crisis management staff as they try to provide services to the homeless. If you squint your eyes a little and look at that statement for a bit, it starts to seem like what the city is saying is this ordinance will most likely be enforced against panhandlers. However, Pughes said his officers have discretion over the enforcement of this ordinance and have other options besides issuing a fine, such as trying to connect people to city services.
So, to the city, the ordinance may provide an avenue for tackling panhandlers, but it’s primarily meant to protect people, even the panhandlers. Standing on medians is dangerous for them and everyone else, the city argues.
Dallas does have a pedestrian safety problem, but will this ordinance help? Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez moved to amend the ordinance so it could be reviewed every year, saying this amendment was necessary because there’s not enough evidence on whether standing on a median poses a public safety risk to pedestrians.
That’s when City Council member Paul Ridley ask for someone on city staff to present evidence in support of the ordinance’s public safety goals. Ghassan "Gus" Khankarli, the director of Dallas’ Department of Transportation, told the City Council there were 68 pedestrian fatalities in Dallas in 2021. Compared to last year, 2022 has seen a slight increase to 70. “So, definitely, we’ve got a trend that is not very favorable and this ordinance will help us in that effort to try and reverse that,” he said. But, he said many of those deaths occurred as people were trying to cross unmarked crosswalks.
Yet, when it came to providing evidence that pedestrians standing on medians had anything to do with fatalities, Khankarli deferred to DPD, which didn’t seem to have the answer Dallas wanted.
“We don’t have supporting information, nor is it documented anywhere in our information that any driver inattention or distraction was caused by subjects on the medians,” DPD Assistant Chief Michael Igo said.
The Dallas City Council approved the annual review of the ordinance, so in a year's time we may have some idea of how effective it is.
Krista Nightengale, executive director of The Better Block, a local nonprofit focused on urban design, said medians are supposed to be used by pedestrians, and they're meant to make them safer.
"Medians are there so that folks can take a second to kind of look around and have a little protection to ensure they're okay when they're crossing," Nightingale said. "Our Dallas streets are incredibly wide. We have some really ridiculous intersections and on some of these, the timing isn't right with the countdowns, and there are times that you can't get across an entire span of road in that one countdown."
That's where the medians come in handy.
Nightengale added that it's not unlikely the city will end up in legal hot water over the ordinance. "I don't fully understand how they think that this won't lead to a lawsuit because this is exactly how Oklahoma City tried to do it," she said.
Instead of enforcing an ordinance that may get Dallas sued, Nightengale suggested other ways the city can make pedestrians safer, like expanding the medians and ensuring all crosswalks are marked. "If anything, we need wider medians so that people have more space to be in," she said. "That would be safer than ticketing people for waiting in a median to cross."