[Hpn] Atlanta, GA - plainclothes panhandler crackdown

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Fri, 08 Jun 2001 14:05:10 -0700


[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 6.8.2001]

Police crack down on begging
Officers go undercover for Supercomm convention

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Travis Monroe (left) tries to squeeze a little money out of Atlanta police
officers Mike O'Hagan (center) and Kevin Dakin, who posed as conventioneers
Wednesday.Atlanta police went undercover this week to clean up downtown for
the Supercomm convention.

They arrested 21 beggars in a sweep aimed at protecting Atlanta's $4.2
billion convention business. Police say they want tourists to feel safe. But
an American Civil Liberties Union official said it comes at the cost of
violating panhandlers' constitutional free speech rights.

Two officers, Kevin Dakin and Mike O'Hagan, dressed up Wednesday evening as
typical convention-goers. They wore tan slacks, blue button-down shirts and
Supercomm name badges. Between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., they walked around the
main downtown tourist areas along Peachtree Street, Peachtree Center Avenue,
Andrew Young International Boulevard and Harris Street.

Time and time again, men approached them with a variety of pitches for spare

On International Boulevard, Jerry Washington walked up carrying his sleeping
bag, a clipboard, pencils and crudely drawn portraits.

"I'll draw your picture for five dollars," Washington said.

"No thanks. I already know what I look like," O'Hagan said.

"Well, will you help me out with some spare change? I'm trying to get
something to eat," Washington said.

Dakin and O'Hagan told him no. The two undercover cops twisted like they
were stretching their backs and walked away.

The twist was the signal. Another cop in uniform drove up and asked
Washington to put his hands behind his back. He balked and pulled away from
the cop. After a two-second struggle, Washington was in handcuffs and asking
what he did wrong.

Sgt. Lance Alford told him the law.

"The problem is you can't be aggressive panhandling," Alford said. "You
can't ask for money within 15 feet of a business. You can't ask for money 15
feet from an ATM. You can't ask for money within 15 feet of a telephone.
Bottom line, you can't beg downtown."

"I didn't know all this," Washington said. He told the cops he is homeless
and recently moved to Atlanta from Michigan.

On Thursday morning, Washington pleaded no contest to the panhandling charge
before Atlanta Municipal Judge Elaine Carlisle. She gave him seven days in

Some of the men picked up in the sweep got lighter sentences from Atlanta
Municipal Judge William Riley. At noon Thursday, Riley asked five defendants
a series of questions. He learned all five had homes. And three of the five
had regular jobs. Panhandling was part-time work for them. Riley sentenced
the panhandlers to eight hours of cleanup duty in downtown Atlanta.

Gerry Weber, legal director for the ACLU in Georgia, said sentencing a man
to seven days in jail is a sure way of getting him to beg again.

"If he had a job, he will get fired if he goes to jail for seven days,"
Weber said.

Plus, from Weber's perspective, police are violating the beggars' rights to
free speech. Police can arrest aggressive panhandlers who get in people's
faces, follow them down the street or physically intimidate people, Weber

"You can say, 'I just lost my job. I'm hungry. I'm trying to find a place to
stay.' All of that is protected free speech," Weber said. The Constitution
is not suspended for conventions or in the downtown district, he said.

Alford, the sergeant who supervised Wednesday night's sweep, said his
officers are enforcing the law, which includes a long list of locations
where even mild begging is forbidden. The law was rewritten in response to a
1996 federal lawsuit brought on behalf of homeless people in Atlanta.

Some people attending the Supercomm 2001 convention have complained this
year about there being more panhandlers in Atlanta, said Jack Chalden, the
convention's general manager.

But he said Atlanta feels safer now than it did in the past.

"One of the evolutions of the city has been the extraordinary impact the
Ambassador Force has had on the impression that the city is safe," he said.

 2000 Cox Interactive Media

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