Citing free speech concerns, the Dallas Police Department is changing the way it enforces the city’s panhandling ordinances.
No longer will Dallas police officers issue panhandling citations to people soliciting in public areas such as sidewalks. They will take enforcement action only if they’re violating other laws, such as being disorderly.
“If it’s a First Amendment right, it’s a First Amendment right for everybody,” Police Chief U. Renee Hall told WFAA. She said the city cannot treat the homeless differently than other groups without risking legal action.
Other cities have found themselves on the losing end of lawsuits over similar issues across the nation.
On New Year's Day, police officers received a roll training bulletin directing that they can take enforcement action for panhandling if someone attempts to solicit in the public roadway. Charitable organizations who are authorized to do so by the “local authority” are exempt, according to the bulletin.
DPD's decision is a clear step back from its previous aggressive efforts to fight panhandling on the city's sidewalks in downtown and its entertainment districts.
Councilman Philip Kingston, who represents most of the city’s business district where panhandling is a constant issue, said he was caught off guard last week when WFAA first reported that police were changing panhandling enforcement.
“You don't just make a change like that without consulting council and the public safety committee,” he said. “I feel like this was a surprise.”
Council members were told in a closed-door briefing back in September that there were legal concerns. But Kingston said he and other council members should have been briefed before changes were actually made.
Police officials said what led to the confusion was that a couple of commanders jumped the gun when they sent out emails before the Christmas holiday directing their officers to stop issuing tickets for panhandling.
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, was critical of the department’s roll out of the changes.
“We’re once again taking a tool away from officers and we’re leaving officers confused about what they can do and what they can’t do and when they can do it,” he said. “We need specific, clear guidelines about when an officer can write a citation and under what circumstances they can do it.”
He also said the roll bulletin did not answer the question about whether officers write citations under ordinances that prohibited panhandling in certain places such as near gas pumps, ATMS, banks and outdoor dining areas.
“Is that protected speech or is that something we can still enforce?” he said. “It wasn’t addressed in the roll call bulletin or in the memo from the city.”
For years, the city has been trying to crack down on panhandling. It passed a 2007 ordinance that restricted panhandling in certain areas. In 2014, the city passed an ordinance that required anyone wanting to solicit within the City of Dallas to register and obtain a permit. Charitable and non-profit organizations were exempted.
It all comes as the city was expected to soon launch an educational initiative called “Give Right Dallas” to encourage people to give to charitable organizations that help the homeless rather than to panhandlers. The plan was to designate re-purposed parking meters in Deep Ellum, the Forest/Abrams area and Preston Center for people to make donations.
It was slated to start in December but council members raised concerns over the proposed $200,000 cost and a lack of emphasis in downtown and South Dallas.
“People need to get the message that if you’re giving money, you’re creating the problem,” Kingston says. “This panhandling initiative is not fully formed so it makes it appear that we’re backing down from enforcement at the same time we’re treading water with regard to the initiative.”
Either way, it probably won’t make much of a difference to someone like Lamont Lewis.
He is homeless. Deep Ellum is his hangout. He panhandles to feed his habits. He admitted that he does drugs and drinks.
“I dig the rich because I'm poor and when I need some money I gotta come to the rich,” he said.