Seattle Police Department’s role in curbing aggressive panhandling is once again the subject of debate among city officials.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the public safety, civil rights and technology committee, said there’s been a significant increase in aggressive begging over the past couple years. Between January 2010 and August 2012 there were 24 reports of aggressive panhandling, and 105 accounts of obstructing in the city of Seattle, he said.
In the current legislation, obstruct means to “walk, stand, lie, or place an object in a manner as to block passage by another person or a vehicle.”
Aggressive begging is defined in Seattle municipal code as “means to beg with the intent to intimidate another person into giving money or goods.”
During the meeting, Councilmember Nick Licata said in a strictly legal sense, there is only so much that can be done about aggressive begging. The city holds some responsibility to those who may suffer from mental illness or chemical dependence.
Based on recent data, the current law appears to be effective, Harrell said. Between 2010 and 2011, 45 percent of defendants in aggressive panhandling cases were found guilty.
But in 15 percent of all cases, the defendant was dismissed for mental incompetence.
Licata suggested aggressive panhandling could be addressed by identifying the needs of those who may suffer from dependency or mental illness, separating them from those who just have a “bad attitude,” and making people feel like they are part of a larger community.
“How do we get our arms around this population?” Licata said. “How do we figure out who these people are? To a certain extent as we walk by them, they are anonymous. If they are arrested or booked we know the names. It’s a little more of an investment, but also a responsibility [on both sides].”
Jon Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association agreed. He said that for decades at a time, the same people sleep on the streets and in doorways.
“They are not getting the help they need,” he said.
Harrell said one challenge is that city council and SPD don’t share a common definition for proactive policing. City council wants SPD to proactively address things such as graffiti, jaywalking, begging and sitting/lying on sidewalks.
But SPD defines proactive policing as “crime prevention,” Harrell said. The conflicting definitions make it difficult to determine the effectiveness of their methods, or how much time is spent on them.
Seattle City Council passed an aggressive panhandling law in 1994, and implementation of the law has been debated ever since.