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Little Rock police to enforce in-road soliciting ban; chief says higher crime a priority

by Chelsea Boozer | May 7, 2017 at 4:30 a.m. | Updated May 8, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Little Rock police now can enforce a citywide ban on begging or soliciting in medians and roadways, almost two years after the city board passed a rule prohibiting the practice.

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Confusion over a judge's ruling in November that struck down the state law prohibiting panhandling, paired with the fact that the July 2015 city ordinance about soliciting in roadways had never been codified, had resulted in the city ban going unenforced.

City Attorney Tom Carpenter discovered earlier this year that the city ordinance had never been put on the books so that officers could issue code citations for solicitation or distribution in medians or the street.

In an April 4 memo to police, Carpenter told them that the ban was now officially city code and instructed them that they could issue citations for violations of the rule.

In an April 28 memo to city directors, City Manager Bruce Moore told elected officials that the Police Department's community-oriented policing officers have been instructed to begin enforcing the solicitation ordinance "immediately."

Police Chief Kenton Buckner said last week that enforcing the ban is "a low priority given the volume and level of crime in our city."

"All officers have the latitude to issue a citation, however our [community-oriented policing officers] were specifically asked to address the issue when possible," Buckner wrote in an email.

The city Board of Directors banned solicitation or distribution of anything -- money, pamphlets, food, newspapers -- in a roadway or a median during a July 14, 2015, meeting.

Those actions are still legal if they are done from a sidewalk.

City directors said their constituents complained about beggars, youth groups and sports teams constantly approaching them at certain intersections.

At the time, the board wanted to allow other groups -- such as the Nation of Islam, which distributed a newsletter for donations in medians, and the Little Rock Fire Department union, which does an annual boot drive fundraiser -- to continue their work.

To allow for groups like that, which city directors didn't think were causing problems, the board approved a pilot program in May 2016 that allowed solicitation in medians for six weeks, under certain conditions. The conditions restricted the age of solicitors and the hours they could work, and required them to wear easy-to-see neon colors.

The board instructed city staff members to gather traffic information, compile a list of any problems arising from the pilot program and provide a synopsis of ordinances from other cities that had dealt with solicitation in roadways.

The information was supposed to be provided to board members at the end of the six weeks for them to further consider whether a ban was necessary or if a modified version would work.

But city staff members never provided the data, and the board has yet to take up the matter again. City spokesman Lamor Williams said staff members didn't do as instructed "because the broad, general nature of the request makes it difficult to do a traffic study."

This year, the Little Rock chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters union asked again to be allowed to do its in-street fundraiser, in which firefighters collect money in boots from drivers and passengers. The event benefits the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

As recently as last week, officials were considering another "pilot program" that would have allowed the firefighters to have their fundraiser this year.

At the request of a board member, Carpenter drafted an ordinance that would allow solicitation in roads and medians for a period of time under certain conditions and had planned for it to be introduced at last Tuesday's city board meeting. But, no one ever introduced the ordinance, and it wasn't discussed or voted on.

Richard Morehead, president of the local firefighters union, said the union postponed its fundraiser, which had been planned for Friday, until it can work out a waiver from the solicitation rules with the city.

"It's just disappointing," Morehead said in a phone interview. "They know who we are and what we are doing. They know we are not panhandling. ... Really, the only people getting hurt from this is the children and people from the Muscular Dystrophy Association."

Williams said Thursday that the city manager's office does not plan to have the ordinance on this week's city board agenda. He didn't respond to an email asking why it wouldn't be. City Manager Bruce Moore didn't return a phone message seeking comment.

Police hadn't been enforcing the city's solicitation ban for some time.

In January, an assistant in the city manager's office emailed Carpenter, the city attorney, asking for clarification on the status of the ban. She said residents said they had been told by the police that officers weren't allowed to enforce the ban.

There had been some confusion after police were told they could no longer enforce the state's loitering law as it relates to panhandling and begging.

In November, a U.S. district judge halted enforcement of the state law, saying it was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment by restricting freedom of speech.

"A statute that regulates speech based on its content must be narrowly tailored to promote a compelling government interest," Judge Billy Joe Wilson wrote in his order. "Banning begging in all places, at all times, by all people, in all ways does not come close to chinning this bar."

Little Rock's solicitation ordinance, on the other hand, doesn't ban the practice of asking for money -- rather it restricts where that can be done in an effort to protect public safety, Carpenter has said. The fact that the purpose of the ban is for safety separates Little Rock's rule from the state law that banned begging outright, he said.

Under the city ban, people still can solicit or distribute items if they are standing on the sidewalk and the vehicle in the roadway is at a complete stop and the person in the vehicle voluntarily participates.

Carpenter sent an email to the police chief in mid-January detailing the distinction.

Buckner responded from his cellphone with a short message.

"Little Rock is the most violent mid-size city in the United States. Enforcing an ordinance for people begging in the median is problem number 99 for us," the chief wrote.

So far this year, the city has seen 21 homicides, up from 10 in the same time last year. Little Rock is on track to have 60 killings this year if the trend continues -- on par with the number during the notorious high-violence years of the 1990s.

Still, some city directors often complain about begging at certain intersections.

Particular problem areas have been Bowman Road and Chenal Parkway; where Asher Avenue and Colonel Glenn Road intersect with University Avenue; and along Chenal Parkway, officials said.

Metro on 05/07/2017

Print Headline: LR police to enforce in-road soliciting ban

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