It's Sunday evening on Beale Street and everybody seems to be having a good time. Tourists casually snap photos of neon signs. A crowd gathers around a street vendor spray-painting landscapes. Down the street, a full jazz band is playing on the sidewalk. A man dances beside them, clutching a fistful of CDs.
And there's not a panhandler in sight.
City councilman Rickey Peete has said that since Hurricane Katrina there's been a "significant increase" in panhandling downtown. If he had his way, the area would become a "No Panhandling Zone."
"The director of police informed Jeff Sanford [president of the Center City Commission] of an increase in panhandlers coming from New Orleans," said Peete, who also serves as executive director of the Beale Street Merchants Association and chairman on the CCC. "These aren't people in need. These are professional panhandlers."
No statistics were available from the downtown police precinct. But inspector Matt McCann, a public relations officer for the Memphis Police Department, said there has been a slight increase in "more aggressive panhandling from people who are not normally down there."
"It gets to the point where some of them will get in front of you and not let you by. If they put their hands on you, that can be considered assault," said McCann.
McCann said undercover officers from the entertainment district unit have to catch panhandlers in the act in order to issue them a citation. There is a fine for panhandling without obtaining a (free) permit. If someone is caught aggressively panhandling, they can be arrested for assault.
Peete is part of a downtown task force made up of business leaders, police, and social service workers. Peete said the group would like to see new signage marking the area as a "No Panhandling Zone."
"If we had signs up alerting the public that aggressive panhandling is not permitted, then from a psychological perspective, people will feel more comfortable about saying no," said Peete. "That is something that could be done without changing the laws."
However, Peete said he'd like for the council to work in conjunction with the city attorney's office to strengthen the current panhandling laws. He said they would also like to see a greater police presence downtown.
But McCann said they should be careful when looking at dealing with city ordinances.
"In The Commercial Appeal, Peete said he wanted to give these people a one-way ticket out of town, and you just can't do that," said McCann. "They have to be careful to maintain the balance between protecting the public without infringing upon constitutional rights of free speech."