OKC police, fire weigh in on panhandling ordinance
The new panhandling ordinance in Oklahoma City is changing the way the city's first responders handle their business.
Police officers will be tasked with enforcing the new law, but for the first 30 days they will be handing out an information sheet explaining the new panhandling guidelines, Maj. Dexter Nelson said.
Officers will not be issuing citations or making arrests during the monthlong period, he said.
"We don't write a lot of those tickets anyway because we know they can't pay it. We want them to get off the median so that they're not out there causing accidents and becoming parts of accidents," Nelson said.
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"We get tons of calls wanting us to do something about the panhandlers, and we tell them, until we see them doing certain things we can't," he said.
Before the new ordinance, police could only enforce panhandling that was considered "aggressive."
Aggressive panhandling includes continuing to beg after being declined, touching a person, blocking their way, using violent or threatening gestures, following people, using profane language, begging from people waiting in line or begging in a way that makes people fearful.
"It's not something that occupies a lot of our time. We're busy answering calls for service, but we know that they're a safety hazard out there in the roadway and crossing the roadway when they do it repeatedly. We know that our accidents go up when we have them out there because cars are stopping on green lights to give them money sometimes. And we know we've had some of them hit by cars," Nelson said. "Every now and then, they get into it over who's working what intersection and at what time and that type of thing."
"They get into it with drivers when they cause wrecks and then they go walking off because the car in front of you, they look like they're going to make the light and then all of a sudden they stop to hand this guy a dollar and it causes a collision," Nelson said. "Then the guy walks off with the money and we show up. That happens routinely. That happens much more often than the transients get run over."
The number of panhandlers has also increased in the past year or two and the regulars are known to police, he said.
"It used to be you only saw them at just certain locations. Now you can virtually see people almost everywhere. Since the news came out about the ordinance coming out, they're a little scarce. They may think it's already in effect; it's not," Nelson said in December.
"We will see some of the people working the same corners during the same time of day just about every day of the week. It is a job to them. They will rotate corner to corner, but they will negotiate that with other people who work those corners and intersections," Nelson said.
"It's one of those nuisance things," he said.
‘Fill the Boot' campaign
The latest panhandling measure will also prompt changes in the way city firefighters approach the “Fill the Boot” fundraising drive, which turns firefighters into panhandlers for a few hours a year.
Oklahoma City fire Battalion Chief Benny Fulkerson said that the new ordinance prohibiting from panhandling on the medians will undoubtedly impact the campaign, which benefits the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Firefighters on duty stand on corners, in medians, and in the streets collecting donations when they're not responding to an emergency call.
The department has not decided how they will modify the campaign yet, which has occurred regularly in the city over at least the past two decades, he said.
"Obviously, it's something that we've done for a long time. We've had a pretty good run. In fact, the past three years, we've averaged about $300,000 that we've raised for MDA, so that's pretty significant," Fulkerson said.
"But the bigger picture is when city leaders tell us we're going to do something or not going to do something, that's the orders we march by. It's just as simple as that. If they tell us we're not doing it, we're not doing it," he said.
Fulkerson said the MDA campaign is just one of many that local firefighters are involved with, including aluminum can drives to benefit burned children, providing turkeys at Thanksgiving, a coat drive for children in the winter and 5K runs, among other fundraisers.
"We have a very generous community here. They've always been extremely supportive of not only that, but everything we've been involved with," he said.
"We're firefighters, but we're humans and it feels good to be able to do something like that. It feels good to go out and save someone's life today or pull someone out of a fire or get them out of a vehicle accident, but it feels just as good to know that we've provided a warm coat for a kid at a school that maybe wouldn't have had one otherwise," he said.
"We're very involved in the community in as many ways as we can be throughout the year in addition to just saving lives and property, which is what we're really here to do," Fulkerson said.
At a glance: What the new ordinance says
The text of the City of Oklahoma City’s Ordinance #25,283:
Traffic medians are a means to control traffic and are dangerous places (to) stand. A median safety ordinance takes effect in Oklahoma City on January 7, 2016 that prohibits you from standing, sitting or staying on streets and traffic medians.
•The exception includes medians that are:
•30 or more feet in width from curb to curb or parts of medians at least 200 feet from an intersection.
Medians with benches, parks, trails or other improvements designed for public use.
People legally crossing the street are not affected by the ordinance. Please stay safe by keeping off the median unless you are there to cross the street. A citation could result in a $100 fine.
Source: City of Oklahoma City