The Kansas City police department won’t enforce the city’s three-month-old panhandling law because, it contends, it violates the Constitution.
The law, passed in March, establishes new regulations for street artists and panhandlers. It is aimed at reducing what one supporter called “visual blight” in tourist areas like the Plaza and downtown.
But after meeting with legal staff, the department has decided — without telling the City Council — that the law won’t pass a legal test.
“The chief (Jim Corwin) is adamant that he isn’t going to enforce what he believes is an unconstitutional ordinance,” said department spokesman Rich Lockhart.
The decision angered supporters of the law, delighted opponents — and surprised just about everyone involved.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Barry Brady of Highwoods Properties, which owns the Country Club Plaza. “It’s something our customers and tenants wanted. They feel panhandling detracts from the environment we’re trying to create here.”
But attorney Doug Bonney called the ordinance “foolishness.”
“It’s a very good thing they’re not enforcing it,” said Bonney, who took part in discussions with police and city lawyers about the ordinance after representing panhandlers in the past.The new law establishes three broad definitions of panhandling:
- “Aggressive” panhandling, which is barred citywide.
- “Verbal” panhandling — asking for a handout — which is allowed in most places, except close to streets, ATMs, and in five entertainment zones: the Plaza, Westport, south downtown, Zona Rosa, and 18th and Vine.
- “Passive” panhandling — using a cup or cigar box for donations, without actually asking for cash — is OK in the five entertainment zones, except for areas close to shop doorways or streets.
“It’s Rube Goldberg,” Bonney said. “The police were going to need a tape measure to enforce it.”
But the law’s sponsor says the restrictions on panhandling close to streets are needed to protect safety.
“I just think there’s some dangerous activity going on, especially at these intersections,” said John Fairfield, former city councilman. “From that standpoint something needs to be done.”
And Fairfield expressed frustration that the police department did not express its concerns before the law passed: “They certainly had an opportunity along the way.”
City attorney Galen Beaufort, who thinks the law could pass a court challenge, said he could not recall another example of the police department deciding, on its own, to not enforce a law.
“They have a different set of concerns than the city and the council do, and they have to think those through,” Beaufort said.
Lockhart said the department fears an immediate court challenge if it arrests someone for breaking the new law.
“We tried to tweak an ordinance that didn’t need to be tweaked,” Lockhart said. “It puts us in the position of having to solve the homelessness problem.”
Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who sits on the police board, said he was unaware of the department’s position on the ordinance, but he wasn’t angry.
“We know we need to communicate better back and forth,” he said. “That’s not news … obviously, if the ordinance is unenforceable, we need to revisit it.”
How the city would revisit the ordinance, however, isn’t clear. There are no discussions underway about a revised law.
And it isn’t clear the ordinance, or anything like it, would pass the new council. “I didn’t think it sounded like great public policy when it went down,” Funkhouser said.
Shortly after the law passed, several panhandlers and street artists complained that security officers on the Plaza were enforcing its new provisions.
Brady, though, said that won’t happen without police “backup.”
“I hope we can get the police department comfortable with this new ordinance,” Brady said.
Bonney suggested the unenforceability of the new ordinance presented a new problem: since the council repealed the old law before enacting the new one, panhandling might actually be allowed now almost anywhere, at any time.Beaufort said that isn’t the case. He said the police could continue to arrest panhandlers for “aggressive” begging, which is part of the new law and which police have done for years.