Right now, Dallas residents and visitors are free to panhandle whenever they want, however they want, as long as they don't solicit from people in cars or commit another criminal offense, like assault. That's the upshot of the Dallas Police Department's new training bulletin on panhandling enforcement, issued in response to a potential legal challenge of the city's "solicitation by coercion," or aggressive panhandling, ordinance. Listening to new Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall talk to the Dallas City Council's Public Safety Committee about panhandling Monday, however, you'd never know it.
Early in Monday's meeting, City Council member Sandy Greyson asked Hall whether newspaper stories saying that DPD can't enforce existing panhandling regulations because they are likely to be found unconstitutional were accurate.
"The ordinance is not telling us that we can enforce panhandling, per se. The ordinance tells us from the Dallas Police Department, that we're able to enforce certain provisions of the panhandling ordinance, which is those areas surrounding. Now, the city ordinance tells us that you can enforce panhandling. So what we're saying, and what we've been advised, and what this body has been advised, is that panhandling within itself has been deemed unconstitutional," Hall said.
"Unconstitutional? Or it's been deemed constitutional?," Greyson asked.
"I'm sorry. Constitutional. And so, enforcement of it opens us up for litigation," Hall said.
So the answer to Greyson's question was, we're pretty sure, "Yes, the stories were right."
Then, City Council member Philip Kingston asked Hall if the city still had any panhandling free zones, like Deep Ellum or the Central Business District.
"Any panhandling free zone that's existed, we have not changed any panhandling free zones," Hall said. "I think we have to work with legal to figure out if those zones are actually enforceable, if we are able to actually keep them as a panhandling free zone based on the ordinance."
"So, today, are officers able to write citations based on the panhandling free zones?" Kingston asked.
"Right now, officers are writing citations based on the two ordinances that have been issued to them from our roll call training bulletin," Hall said. "These are the [ordinances] that we've said are enforceable for the Dallas Police Department."
"That does not include the panhandling free zones," Kingston said.
"We have not given direction on the panhandling free zone. We've only instructed officers to enforce those ordinances that we have issued to them in a training bulletin," Hall said.
"And not enforce anything else?" Kingston asked.
"To enforce those that we've issued in a training bulletin. It is our obligation when we're put in these positions to ensure that puts the city and/or the police department in a position of litigation that we move in an aggressive manner to prevent that," Hall said.
This is a tougher one, but our best reading is that she said "No, we're not enforcing panhandling free zones."
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The chief went on to tell both Kingston and committee chairman Adam McGough that she should've done a better job informing the council of the enforcement policy changes before they were implemented in December.
"I would appreciate not just an attempt [to communicate better with us]," McGough said. "It's not hard to get in touch with us. I don't want to read about it in the paper. Just let us know."
Speaking in plain English would be helpful to both the council and the media, but that's just our suggestion.
The council's next look at panhandling is scheduled for Feb. 26, when city staff will provide on update on "Give Right Dallas," the city's yet-to-begin marketing campaign intended to cut off panhandling at the source by encouraging those who would otherwise give to individuals to give to homeless support organizations. Or maybe the city could have officers explain the program to panhandlers until they get bored and confused and just go away.