Last week, citing complaints from downtown workers and residents about aggressive panhandling in the neighborhood, Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess rolled out an ordinance that would prohibit panhandling near ATMs and parking meters; using abusive language while asking for money; pursuing a person who has refused to give money; and offering or providing unsolicited services without consent.
The proposal, Burgess said during an early-morning public-safety forum last week, would give the city tools to deal with people who are “basically street thugs who are preying on our citizens, whether because of addiction or because of greed for money.” Although low-level crimes downtown have actually decreased, more downtown residents reported feeling unsafe in a recent survey, and "major crimes"—murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, auto theft, and arson (none of which would be addressed by Burgess' ordinance) have gone up 22 percent in the past year.
On his blog, Burgess pointed to emails from downtown residents and employees expressing concern about aggressive panhandling in the neighborhood. "To many observers, including business owners, community leaders, social services providers, and residents, we are approaching a dangerous tipping point where perceptions of crime and unsafe conditions could lead to long-term negative consequences," Burgess wrote.
For example, one woman wrote that she has to "dodge panhandlers at every intersection" and has started avoiding places "if I know that I have to walk by someone who will treat me aggressively and rudely." Another woman, who works at a downtown hotel, said visitors love the city "with one exception, 'the street people.' The visitors do not feel comfortable walking from their hotels, to the market, or catching the bus without being approached by many different panhandlers and street people along their route."
However, an analysis by The Defender Association's Racial Disparity Project raises questions about whether Burgess' proposal is the right approach. The study, which looked at citizen complaints to city council members about specific panhandling incidents downtown since last September (when Burgess first raised the idea of new restrictions) reveals that the majority of the incidents citizens have complained about wouldn't be addressed by Burgess' proposal. Moreover, many could be addressed under existing law, which bars assault and aggressive solicitation.
Of 24 complaints reviewed in the analysis, just nine would even potentially be addressed by the new law, TDA found. Five of those nine were either too vague for TDA attorneys to say for certain if the new law would cover them. The remaining complaints could either be addressed by existing law (things like blocking the sidewalk or defecating on windows), or aren't illegal in the first place (things like yelling at people who refuse to hand over money).
For example, one writer reported seeing "mentally ill and dangerous‐looking people, [being] chased and harassed by a panhandler, [and hearing] of [a] tourist" being assaulted."Assault and harassment are [already] prohibited by Seattle Municipal Code," the TDA's analysis notes.
Similarly, a complaint about "lots of panhandlers, drug dealers, and violence" could be addressed under existing law, since drug dealing and violence are already illegal.
Nick Licata, a frequent ally of TDA, says some people will always be uncomfortable coming downtown. "There's always a certain level of people who feel uncomfortable in big, downtown, dense places where you have a lot of people who aren't the kind of people who live in their neighborhoods," Licata says. "That's the most difficult challenge of Burgess' legislation. He's trying to legislate away fear, and you can't really do that."
Asked whether he found the TDA's analysis credible, Burgess said, "I don't agree at all, because many people have written me about the fear of intimidation. It's true that a lot of what people write about is just urban life and the kind of stuff that happens in the city, but intimidation is different," Burgess said.
Licata, who says Burgess has not spoken to him about his proposal, says the provision barring panhandling within 15 feet of parking meters is "the most troublesome aspect of the bill, from a legal point of view and an enforcement point of view. We have thousands of pay stations. You could basically eliminate half the sidewalks in Seattle."
Burgess plans to roll out his proposal later this month, and says he believes he has enough support on the council to pass it.