Every single day this year, San Antonio police have logged almost 30 complaints about aggressive panhandlers, according to Chief William McManus.
"To continue to try and arrest this problem away is wasting our time," Chief McManus said.
In a briefing to the city council's criminal justice and public safety and services committee, McManus used strong language to describe just how broken the city’s approach to aggressive panhandling is.
McManus said that everyone arrested for a Class C misdemeanor is often back out on the street within hours, which accomplishes nothing.
“They sit in the magistrate's office for a few hours before they see the magistrate, the magistrate releases them for time served,” McManus said.
McManus noted that those who are indigent cannot be forced to pay a fine either.
“So they get arrested over and over and over again at the expense of police officers' time and money, and then they are right back out of the street. You could arrest someone 100 times in two weeks and the cycle just repeats itself,” Chief McManus explained.
More than 9,100 complaints have been made to police in 2016.
City council members who attended the briefing agreed that the problem seems to be getting worse.
"For those of us on the near-west side, we're seeing it in ways we've never seen it before," District 5 Representative Shirley Gonzales said.
Gonzales added that she recently received a report about a disturbing situation in which an aggressive panhandler jumped in front of a car and claimed to be injured just to try to extort money from the startled driver.
“Neighbors are demanding more police enforcement. They have been very active in demanding that they want to see more patrols. They want to see police enforce the things they are responsible for,” Gonzales said.
McManus agreed that the blocks surrounding the Haven for Hope campus have been experiencing an upswing in panhandling complaints recently.
“Customers going into small businesses have been stopped. People have scared them away. And the businesses are calling us and saying, 'What are we supposed to do about this?'” said District 10’s Mike Gallagher, who asked the city council to look into the matter,
McManus agreed that many people are very irritated about the issue.
“Irritation is one thing, simply not liking to see something at an intersection when you pass it is one thing, versus a safety issue," Chief McManus said. "We address the safety issues. The panhandling issue, you can't arrest it away."
McManus added that police will continue to work with Haven for Hope, trying to connect people to other community resources.
“We've taken hundreds of people off the street and they've taken advantage of the services that we've offered them, so things are changing all the time. But, as Councilman Roberto Trevino said, there is no finish line to this,” McManus said.
Gallagher said that, at this point, the best answer is more research, not more arrests. He suggested looking at what other comparable-sized cities are doing.
“There are solutions out there. We just have to see what they are,” Gallagher said. “We know it's going to require creative resources. I believe we have all the tools we need already. We just need to make sure we connect the people with those resources.”
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