During the Center City Commission's (CCC) pilot program to curb aggressive panhandling downtown, safety patrol officers also reprimanded people for loitering and profanity.
Officers recorded 168 instances of panhandling during the three-month pilot program. They also recorded 34 instances of profanity, 86 violations of the city's open container ordinance, and 22 people sleeping on public property.
"If you're using profanity in front of people, and it causes them alarm, that's against city ordinance," says Larry Bloom, public safety coordinator for the CCC.
The city's disorderly conduct ordinance does address the use of "abusive or obscene language" in a public place, but Mid-South Peace and Justice director Jacob Flowers calls the security team's enforcement of it a "free speech issue." Flowers has also criticized the six-person security force for addressing people sleeping in public and loitering.
"We were originally told that this program would be limited to aggressive panhandling only," Flowers says. "But about 44 percent of the patrol's time in May was spent addressing quality of life concerns."
After deeming the three-month pilot successful, the CCC extended the $200,000 program through July 2009. The CCC is now reaching out to local businesses to help fund the program through next summer.
"We project a shortfall in the funding, so we've started a funding drive from the commercial business downtown," Bloom says.
As for addressing issues other than panhandling, Bloom says security officers only target people who are blatantly disregarding the comfort of others.
"What we consider loitering is when groups of two or more are hanging around the trolley stops. They're often also panhandling," Bloom says. "It causes people to be too intimidated to take the trolley."
Officers ask the offenders to leave the area, but citations are not often issued. In the case of open container violations, people are asked to pour out the alcohol and throw it away. Bloom says those who sleep on park benches are roused if they're taking up an entire bench.
Flowers believes officers should focus only on aggressive panhandlers who are threatening people or breaking the law.
"We agree those people need some action taken against them, but we don't believe it should be a criminal justice action," Flowers says. "We need to treat the addictions of mental illness that keep people out on the street trying to get money for their fix."
The Peace and Justice Center is starting a letter-writing campaign to prevent downtown businesses from donating to the CCC's security program.
Says Flowers: "We find it highly ironic that the CCC is now panhandling downtown businesses to fund their program."