Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess has proposed new rules on panhandling that should help restore a sense of civility and safety to downtown and other parts of the city. The new legislation is welcome and overdue.
SEATTLE prides itself on being safer than many other major cities with bigger crime problems and tougher streets. Some of that is still true but felony crime and a sense of menace pervade parts of downtown.
With that in mind, the Seattle City Council should embrace Councilmember Tim Burgess’ sensible package of street-disorder rules that restrict aggressive panhandling. This is not an attack on basic free speech. An individual who simply holds out a hat or asks for a buck will be fine.
But an aggressive panhandler would face a civil infraction of $50 or be required to perform community service. Specifically, the legislation prohibits panhandling that involves blocking a person’s way, touching, intimidating, harassing or soliciting within 15 feet of an individual using a cash machine or public or private parking pay station.
A poll shows 23 percent of Seattle residents avoid downtown because they believe it is unsafe. Lost business equals fewer jobs.
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Burgess’s legislation alone won’t do the job. Appropriately, it fits into a larger continuum of responses, including budget proposals later this year to return foot patrols to more areas and on Wednesdays through Sundays, days with a higher demand for police services.
The other key budget decision looming is continued hiring of police officers, a net increase of 21 a year for two more years to fully implement neighborhood policing. This is must-do city business.
Crime citywide is up 7 percent, but in South Lake Union and the downtown core major crime jumped 22 percent since 2008
“We are near a tipping point, primarily downtown but also in some other sections of the city, Ballard, the University District and the International District,” said Burgess. “The tipping point is the belief, perception or reality that it is not safe to be downtown or in these neighborhoods.”
Burgess has support from several council members, the mayor, the acting police chief and several social-service groups. Some homeless advocates worry that harmless street people will be punished for no reason.
If Seattle wants its downtown and neighborhood business districts to be approachable, if we want businesses to thrive and hire people, the wise course is to support a tougher approach to street disorder.