SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 21, 2013

Salem looks to curb 'aggressive' panhandling

By Bethany Bray
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — City leaders are looking to crack down on “aggressive panhandling,” when people physically or verbally intimidate others as they ask for money.

Police Chief Paul Tucker says his department receives complaints of panhandlers using “aggressive and belligerent” behavior from all over the city. On Highland Avenue, people stand on traffic islands and approach vehicles. Panhandlers also aggressively approach people at gas stations, on city streets, downtown and in other public areas.

There are a few Salem panhandlers who are well-known for their aggressive tactics.

“It’s a problem,” Tucker said. “We have had issues with a number of repeat types of this behavior among certain individuals. ... You can walk up to anybody and ask them for money. What you don’t have the right to do is to start impeding their walking or physically intimidating them.

“It’s behavior that’s not acceptable,” he said.

Salem’s City Council is considering an ordinance that would limit so-called “aggressive panhandling.” Councilors voted last week to approve first passage of the ordinance but also sent it to the board’s Subcommittee on Ordinances, Licenses and Legal Affairs for further review.

The ordinance won’t take effect until the issue is moved out of committee and the full council votes on its final approval.

The measure would prohibit panhandlers from accosting people within 15 feet of an ATM, on public transportation or in vehicles in traffic. It would also prohibit panhandlers from coming within 3 feet of a person, unless the person indicates that they want to make a donation.

Following a person to intimidate him or her, blocking someone’s path or a vehicle’s path, blocking the entrance or exit to a building, or using profane language while panhandling — or after a refusal — would also be prohibited.

As proposed, violators would be fined a maximum of $50 for each offense.

“Panhandling is protected under the freedom of speech. It’s the aggressive panhandling we’re trying to go after,” said Ward 3 Councilor Todd Siegel, who worked with Tucker and Beth Rennard, the city’s lawyer, to craft the panhandling ordinance.

“It’s getting worse. ... There’s been issues of people going up to tourists, randomly. There are repeated complaints about specific people.”

The proposed ordinance is based on one in the city of Everett, Siegel said.

Worcester’s City Council recently passed an ordinance to limit aggressive panhandling, focusing on those who approach vehicles in traffic. Boston’s City Council is considering a similar ordinance this winter and has the support of Mayor Thomas Menino.

At last week’s Salem City Council meeting, Siegel suggested moving the panhandling ordinance to committee so councilors could see how the Boston City Council handles the issue.

Depending on what happens in Boston, Salem councilors could make changes to Salem’s proposed ordinance, Siegel said.

“We’re going to pass some form of it, but we want to take the time to make sure we get it correct,” Siegel said. “We want to make sure we didn’t miss anything. We don’t want to have to do it twice.”

Tucker said he feels the proposed ordinance “strikes a balance between protecting people’s well-being and protecting rights.

“It keeps people from being victimized,” Tucker said. “... I think it’s a good order, and I’m happy the council is considering it.”

Bethany Bray can be reached at bbray@salemnews.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.

The following would be prohibited: Panhandling to people in a vehicle in traffic or stopped on a public street Panhandling to a person on public transportation Panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM Panhandling on private property, unless allowed by the property owner Coming within 3 feet of a person to panhandle, unless the person indicates that they want to make a donation Panhandling by intentionally "obstructing the path" of a person or vehicle Panhandling by intentionally blocking an entrance or exit to a building Panhandling to anyone under 16 Following a person that walks away from a panhandler, intending to intimidate them Using "profane or abusive language" during panhandling, or following a refusal Source: Beth Rennard, Salem city solicitor