Police target 'quality of life' offenders in downtown Dallas

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by By DAVE LEVINTHAL and ROY APPLETON / The Dallas Morning News / The Dallas Morning News Sam Hodges contributed to this report.

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Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:45 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 2:10 PM

Diana Watson and her companion said they were rousted from their slumber and ticketed for sleeping in public before dawn Wednesday near the Urban Market grocery downtown.

"They said, 'The next time you get caught you're going to jail,' " said Watson, passing time on a bench outside the Dallas Public Library, a black hood framing her face, her belongings stuffed in bags piled nearby.

Dallas officials confirmed that they have begun the new year by bearing down on "quality of life" offenses in the city center, specifically panhandling, sleeping in public and public intoxication.

The effort draws on 24 extra police officers assigned to downtown, as well as private security officers employed by the business advocacy group DowntownDallas.

Mayor Tom Leppert said stepped-up enforcement of the city's anti-solicitation ordinance will help scrub downtown of those who harass residents, tourists and businesspeople through aggressive begging.

Likewise, Leppert said, police will now better identify panhandlers in legitimate need and direct them to The Bridge, the city's homeless assistance facility.

"This gives us a lot more officers on the streets not only to deal with panhandling, but other problems downtown," Leppert said. "We've made a big investment downtown. We're starting to see the benefit. We want to sustain that."

Dallas Deputy Police Chief Vince Golbeck said downtown will not see "sweeps" of panhandlers, but the additional officers will allow more focused enforcement where the practice has been a special problem, such as the West End, along Main Street and around the Dallas Farmers Market.

"It's all about trying to increase the comfort level of those who work and live and visit downtown Dallas," he said.

But Watson, the woman arrested Wednesday, had her own complaint of harassment.

"It's ridiculous the way they want to treat people," said the 43-year-old woman, who said she has been homeless in Dallas for most of the last six years and ticketed once before for sleeping outdoors. "They don't give a flying flip if we survive out here."

The enforcement emphasis takes effect just as the extra police officers begin patrolling the downtown area, which in recent years has added several thousand 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 generate much money.)

In 2007, the City Council strengthened its anti-soliciting ordinance. But such quality-of-life laws have been notoriously hard to enforce. The vast majority of people ticketed under Dallas' panhandling ordinance never pay their fines.

Golbeck said that in 2008, police made 217 arrests for soliciting, and they are hoping that attention to the problem will have a deterrent effect in 2009.

"If we see 300 arrests this year, something's not working," he said.

Staff writer Sam Hodges contributed to this report.

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