Saturday, January 10, 2009

Downtown Dallas to experience 'zero tolerance' policy on panhandling

Dallas police, aided by a private force of security officers employed by business advocacy group DowntownDallas, will today begin enforcing a "zero tolerance" policy that applies to panhandling, as well as other minor offenses such as public intoxication and sleeping in public.

"It is critical that the private and public sectors work together to continue these types of public safety efforts which continue to improve our community," DowntownDallas President and Chief Executive Officer John Crawford wrote in an e-mail last night.

The policy takes effect just as 24 additional police officers begin patrolling the downtown area, which in recent years has added several thousand new full-time residents primarily living in formerly vacant office towers converted into apartments and condominiums.

And it comes about a year after top city officials made a public appeal to Dallasites to stop giving money to center city panhandlers and instead donate loose change to charity through dozens of small drop boxes located within downtown businesses. (The program failed to ever generate much money.)

In 2007, the City Council also strengthened its anti-solicitation ordinance, making it a crime for one person to soliciting another any time between sunset and sunrise. Solicitors are also barred from approaching people placing or preparing to place money into a parking meter, panhandling near restaurants' outdoor dining areas, and soliciting within 25 feet of an automated teller machine, bank entrance, pay phone, car wash, gas pump or public transit stop.

But enforcing such quality of life-type laws have been notoriously difficult to enforce: The vast majority of people ticketed under Dallas' panhandling ordinance never pay their fine or otherwise clear their ticket.

And the city's expanded anti-panhandling ordinance is but one of several new laws that some Dallas residents have criticized as high-profile, but ineffective attempts by politicians to control behavior.

City officials, however, contend that such laws result in greater voluntary compliance and give police tools to prevent or stop activities that erode Dallas' quality of life if left unaddressed.

Dave Levinthal