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Wednesday, Jan 29 2014 02:02 PM

'First Look': Police chief wonders about enforcing panhandling ordinance

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    Bakersfield Chief of Police Greg Williamson talks about panhandling on "First Look with Scott Cox" on Jan. 29.

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By THE BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN

Legislative bodies, including local city councils, write laws and ordinances. People in Greg Williamson’s position enforce them. Period.

That doesn’t mean law enforcement officials are blind to the nuances and possible unforeseen consequences that might lie between the lines of those laws and ordinances. Williamson, the Bakersfield chief of police, certainly isn’t blind to them.

The chief made that clear Wednesday when he discussed a proposed Bakersfield ordinance that would place restrictions on so-called panhandling.  The issue, as Williamson sees it, is that homelessness — a condition commonly associated with panhandling — is not a crime, per se. Would a local panhandling ordinance effectively change that?

Homeless, Williamson said during a Wednesday interview on “First Look with Scott Cox,” is “a social issue,” not “a police issue,” but criminalizing an ill-defined activity like panhandling will only make it a police issue.

There is broad agreement that many people, homeless and not, panhandle in downtown Bakersfield every day, begging people for money as they pump gas or leave a restaurant. Bakersfield business owners are concerned that panhandlers might be discouraging clients from patronizing their businesses. Solutions are elusive, but some people in Bakersfield are looking to a new Visalia ordinance banning panhandling in parking lots as a model to use in Bakersfield.

What role should law enforcement play? Some people suggest panhandlers be cited or arrested. Williamson, who said enforcing any type of law against panhandlers is difficult,  isn’t so sure.

“There are a lot of homeless people that have issues such as mental illness and substance abuse problems, but if they aren’t acting out ... and need some help, we should be willing to lend them a helping hand,” Williamson said on the web/radio simulcast, which is produced in The Californian’s newsroom.

Groups such as the Bakersfield Downtown Business Association have met to discuss the issue. And just two weeks ago, The Californian convened a panel of stakeholders to grapple with the community problem in a forum on “First Look.” One topic was the new Visalia ordinance that bans panhandling in parking lots. The ordinance focuses on parking lots because they’re a place people report feeling threatened when they’re approached for money.

Williamson’s aware of the issues; he’s seen panhandlers at downtown gas stations beg for money, too. But unless a police officer witnesses a misdemeanor, they’re not in a position to make an arrest. A citation could be issued if the person who was asked for money sticks around and asks for a citizen’s arrest, the chief said.

But if a citation is issued or an arrest is made, Williamson said, “the jail is so full of dangerous gang members ... there is no room for them (panhandlers).”

One way to combat panhandling, Williamson said, would be to concentrate on the homeless who aren’t aggravating people in the streets and take them to proper locations to get help — like the Bakersfield Homeless Center, The Mission at Kern County or substance abuse programs.

Williamson said he has looked at the Visalia ordinance with the city attorney to figure out whether it would work here. He’s also met with the DBA to hear their concerns about aggressive panhandling.

“If we can, we will be the first responders to address them when we get calls,” he said.

Another issue is whether panhandlers are aggressive, and how, exactly, that’s defined. Is a panhandler blocking access to where you want to go, or just asking for money? And what about people who sell or advertise in front of stores or other locations?

“How do you define aggressive, if someone is sitting at the front door but not blocking the front door, these people (panhandlers) are standing at the gas pumps, not blocking your view,” Williamson said. “Are we going to ban the Girl Scouts too ... under the First Amendment, it gives people the right to ask.”

But a solution hasn’t been decided, even though there is a lot of discussion.

“Homelessness isn’t a police issue, it’s a social issue. It’s an issue for every citizen in this town to deal with. And if they don’t want to deal with it, they look to the police,” Williamson said. “And our hands our tied. We are not taught or trained to go out and violate people’s First Amendment rights. We are not there to do that. We are not there to arrest a person because they don’t have a place to stay.

"Our job is to help them get back on their feet to get to a proper resource."

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