Panhandling With No End In Sight
Panhandling along Beach 116 Street and the surrounding areas is an ongoing problem with little solution in sight, according to many residents and merchants. The questions locals always ask is, “Why can’t they be arrested?” and “Is it legal for them to harass me for money?” Well, the answer to these frequently proposed questions is a fine line for law enforcement officials to walk. It’s the difference between panhandling and “aggressive panhandling.”
New Commanding Officer of the 100 Precinct Scott Olexa and the previous precinct Deputy Inspector Tom Barrett have both tried to address the problems of panhandling on the commercial strip, but have both admitted on several occasions that there’s not much that can be done unless a law is broken. They have the right to panhandle, according to police. It’s not illegal, they repeatedly say. What they don’t have a right to do, however, is physically harass or aggressively panhandle from residents, consumers and merchants. The difference between panhandling and aggressive panhandling is subjective at best.
No better example, perhaps, than a report last week in the New York Times, featuring a female panhandler telling a judge that police harassed her just because she was panhandling on the busy and tourist-laden Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. According to the published report, Sojourner Hardeman, 42, recently unemployed and now homeless, was panhandling one day in March when police arrested her and detained her in the local precinct house for several hours before eventually releasing her without any formal charges. The arrest prompted Hardeman to file a lawsuit in May against the City of New York and while the case is still pending the judge has already ordered a small margin of victory for Hardeman. A stipulation ordered by the judge between the city and Hardeman prohibits police in the precinct area from arresting her unless there was probable cause that she broke the law.
The stipulation also ordered the police department to instruct officers on the definition of disorderly conduct and how it would apply to panhandling.
The problems on Beach 116 Street do not arise so much from homeless people as in the case of Hardeman, but from the area adult homes and SRO hotels, according to residents and merchants.
Danny Ruscillo, president of the 100 Precinct Community Council, deals with residents and merchant complaints about panhandling on a monthly basis at the council meetings. He, too, feels that the aggressive panhandling offense needs to be more clearly defined.
“We need to better define aggressive panhandling,” Ruscillo said. “This is the truth though: if we say no to the panhandlers they will go away. But if you keep giving and let them take command of the community they will never leave.” It’s the aggressive panhandling that also happens frequently outside the Waldbaum’s shopping center where, in one instance, Ruscillo said, an elderly woman was approached by a panhandler in the parking lot who grabbed and pushed her shopping cart while he begged for money. “Just to get rid of him she feels it’s easier to give him money,” he said. “That’s intimidating for an elderly woman walking alone. The aggressiveness is too subjective, though, and rarely can the police do anything about it, except ask them to move along.”
Democratic District Leader Lew Simon said he held a meeting in July with officers from the 100 Precinct along with merchants from Beach 116 Street in hopes of addressing the issue, believing more can be done by police to clean up the area.
“We were told they would clean the block up,” Simon said. “But we do not see any improvements. Residents cannot walk the block without being asked about six times for money. There are an exceptionally high number of mentally ill people who aggressively panhandle and intimidate people.” Aggressive panhandling has to be witnessed, as well, in order for an arrest to take place, adding another obstacle in enforcement. It’s a quality of life issue Ruscillo says that is frequently brought up at the meetings and he doesn’t expect it to go away anytime soon.