Panhandling epidemic: Dover leaders try to curb the city’s begging issue

DOVER — Anybody who shops, eats or pumps gas in Dover knows that aggressive panhandling has become an epidemic in virtually all sectors of the city.

That’s why Dover City Councilmen William “Bill” Hare and Tanner Polce co-sponsored an amendment to Dover’s panhandling ordinance that they believed would reduce the practice of begging for money in the city.

The City Council of the Whole’s Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee discussed the proposed amendment at City Hall on Wednesday night, eventually voting unanimously to table the proposal.

The highlights of Councilman Hare and Councilman Polce’s proposal would have prohibited panhandling between sunset and sunrise, stopped the practice in certain places and situations, made panhandlers pay a $250 fee for a panhandling permit and added a fine between $500 and $1,000 for violations.

“This draft ordinance is in response to some of our concerns about ongoing panhandling, not only in the downtown community, but also at many of our local restaurants, businesses, and of course, our gas stations,” Councilman Polce said. “We know that we as council have really critical decisions in the coming months, big projects that will redefine the way we as a city do business.

“In order to do that, we must ensure that not only is the perception of the community safe, but the community is actually safe.”

However, Dover Police Chief Marvin Mailey had several issues with the councilmen’s proposal and elected to speak in front of the committee.

“The police department opposes this (ordinance) and we oppose it for a lot of different reasons,” Chief Mailey said. “If you look at Title 11, Section 13-21 of Delaware’s Criminal Code, under subsection four of ‘loitering,’ it says, ‘A person is guilty of loitering when the person loiters, remains or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging.’ There’s (also) other mitigating factors that deal with other criminal acts.

“So, to propose that (panhandling) would be allowed in certain locations between certain times, it’s in opposition to Delaware’s Criminal Code.

“Theoretically, as police officers, we take an oath to uphold the laws of the United States, federal, state and local. When we put an officer in a position where he has opposing directions then that causes a problem.”

Permit not feasible

Chief Mailey also didn’t seem to think having a panhandler pay a fee for a permit was feasible.

“If you were to allow people to obtain permits for panhandling, we’re looking at $250,” he said. “I have never in my 25 years (as a police officer) encountered someone who was panhandling who had $250 in his or her pockets – ever.”

The chief went on to tell members of the committee that his officers deal with panhandlers every day, usually telling them that they need to “move on.”

He said officers also often give them directions on where they can find some help, such as Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing, the Hopes and Dreams Peer Resource Center and Code Purple Kent County.

“Typically, when we contact a panhandler, we will ask them to move on,” Chief Mailey said. “But we have the discretion to go all the way up to an arrest and issue a city ordinance, so there are levels already in place.

“As the chief of the Dover Police Department I would have a real problem asking my officers to do something that opposes state law.”

That became the impetus to table the aggressive panhandling measure on Wednesday night.

Law against panhandling

“After hearing the chief (Mailey) it’s my understanding that there is a law against the panhandling and if they were able to have a permit then that would be enabling them to do it,” Councilman Hare said.

“I see your point there, there is already a law against it. I think we need to be a little more proactive, maybe if we did arrest one or two (panhandlers) and the word travels around.”

While the proposed amendment was not passed, Councilman Polce did manage to bring the issue of panhandling to the forefront of the discussion among the city’s leaders.

He said just about everybody in Dover has been approached by a panhandler, who often suffer from substance abuse, mental disorders or are among the population of 300 to 400 homeless people around the city.

“This, in short, is a tool in a tool kit that would allow our police agency to come in contact with individuals who would be panhandling and essentially not automatically arrest those individuals,” he said.

“The goal would ultimately be to have our police agency to have more discretion in these matters in order to reduce panhandling, to make sure the panhandlers are aware that we are proactively engaging the community to say, ‘Look, we cannot continue to do this and harass the patrons.’”

While the aggressive panhandling amendment was tabled, it did provide a chance for the city’s representatives to openly talk about an issue that often gets shoved in the back of the closet.

Up for discussion

“I support Councilman Polce’s intent with this proposal,” City Councilman Matt Lindell said. “Regardless of what happens, at least this brought (panhandling) up for discussion because it is an issue.

“At the end of the day, if this isn’t the solution (to panhandling), we still have the issue.”

Councilman Fred Neil agreed that the issue of panhandling needs to be addressed.

“The last thing we want to do is discourage people from using downtown,” said Councilman Neil. “Having this discussion, we have brought it out and said, ‘We’re going to try to do something.’ I applaud Councilman Polce. We’re aware of it and we want the public to know that we’re aware of it.”

However, not all city council members were pleased with the way the discussion involving aggressive panhandling evolved during Wednesday’s meeting.

“I don’t know if I’m the only one that feels this way, but this is the second occurrence where I have witnessed certain council members attempting to implement ordinances that have not been rigorously and legally thought out, which in my opinion depicts all of council members as unruly,” City Councilman Roy Sudler Jr. said.

“First, the Public Safety Fee proposal assessing a fee disguised as a land tax, and now, the permit fee for aggressive panhandling, which is also not state or federally legal to do.

“I think council members should always get a legal opinion before presenting prospect ordinances.”

Councilman Polce wasn’t completely shocked that his and Councilman Hare’s panhandling proposal was tabled.

“In full disclosure, I’ve had a previous conversation with the chief (Mailey) and he has raised warranted concerns about this panhandling ordinance,” Councilman Polce said.

“One thing that I said to him was I will not encourage us to ram this through the process without having proper consultation through our police department.”

Seeking real solutions

Chief Mailey said the Dover Police Department does not have the manpower to issue panhandling permits or to physically track nuisance panhandlers.

He said the police do their best to patrol the parking lots of convenience stores and shopping centers to make their presence felt.

“One of the top five problems that I hear (from the public) is panhandling, (people saying) I don’t feel safe because people are approaching me at Wawa, intersections … it’s been a problem, and we’re aggressively looking at the problem,” Chief Mailey said.

Councilman Polce did offer his thanks to the police chief and the police department.

“Our police agency does a tremendous amount of work with very little resources,” he said. “I think that ultimately is one of the major issues.”

Many members of the committee said they would like to see the city of Dover add around 10 more police officers and more cadets — that way they could spread the responsibilities around and cover more ground toward making Dover a safer place.

“We all are aware of the issues of panhandling,” Mayor Robin Christiansen said.

“Although Councilman Polce and Councilman Hare have great intent, I think that the discussion here points out that the problem is not just downtown but it’s all over the city.

“Aggressive panhandling has to come to a stop in the city of Dover.”

 

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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