[Marxism] Orblando Uses Decoys to Nab Beggars

Michael Hoover mhhoover at gmail.com
Tue Aug 15 18:44:47 MDT 2006


Use of decoys to nab beggars draws scrutiny

Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 14, 2006

Orlando police are using undercover stings to nab panhandlers downtown, a
largely unknown practice now coming under scrutiny as the debate over the
homeless in the City Beautiful heats up.

The city has made 186 panhandling arrests since Oct. 1, more than half of
them resulting from "decoy teams" of undercover, plainclothes officers who
place themselves near a suspected beggar and wait until they are asked for
money, food, a cigarette or anything else of value.

"We're getting decoys out, on average, once a week," said Lt. Jim
Marchione, night commander for the downtown district. "You just make
yourself available as you walk down the street, and nine times out of 10,
they're going to ask you for money."

The tactic puts Orlando on a very short list of cities nationwide that
routinely use undercover cops -- who more commonly target drugs and
prostitution -- against panhandlers. Mayor Buddy Dyer said the city saw a
spike in aggressive panhandling three to four months ago, and that an
increase in undercover patrols was needed to ensure the safety of downtown
workers and visitors.

But the practice is drawing attention at a time when Orlando's image has
suffered over its treatment of the downtrodden. Within the past two weeks,
a new ban on feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park made the city the
nationwide butt of jokes on late-night television and earned Orlando a
likely spot on the "meanest cities" list put out by the National Coalition
for the Homeless.

The tactic also is sure to intensify the already tense showdown between
City Hall and advocates for the homeless. The group [Orlando] Food Not
Bombs has defied the city's 3-week-old ban on feedings in Lake Eola Park --
so far with no arrests -- and plans to thumb its nose at the City Council
by feeding the homeless on the steps of City Hall today [at 5 p.m.].
[Actually, the sharing at City Hall is being organized by S.T.O.P.--Stop
the Ordinance Partnership, and Orlando Food Not Bombs is only one of
several secular and religious groups participating.]

Critics, including those already fighting the feeding ban, said the
undercover panhandling operation is a poor use of resources in light of the
city's record homicide rate.

"Don't they have something better to do with their time?" asked George
Crossley, head of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"There have been 37 murders in Orlando this year, and they're out there
using plainclothes officers to run sting operations on panhandlers. It
would be nice if they focus on that rather than on throwing someone in jail
for asking for food or money."

A complex relationship

The city has used undercover officers to nab panhandlers for at least 21/2
years, but the practice isn't widely known. It was recently disclosed to
members of a downtown advisory board as part of a regular update on
law-enforcement activity in the city's core.

Orlando has a mixed relationship with the homeless. The city purchased the
land for the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, the region's
main shelter and assistance organization, and gives the group $339,000 a
year. Orlando taxpayers also fund the Salvation Army.

But city officials insist that most panhandlers aren't homeless.

"We don't believe those who are doing the panhandling are generally those
who are in need," said Commissioner Robert Stuart, who also heads the
Christian Service Center, an agency that assists the homeless.

The city's methods of dealing with panhandlers have long come under fire.
The city once banned panhandling altogether, but courts began striking down
similar laws as unconstitutional. So in 1997, the city passed a law
requiring beggars to go to the police station and get a permit before
panhandling.

That didn't work, so in 2000, the city did away with the permit system and
painted 36 blue boxes on sidewalks. Now, panhandling is allowed only within
the 3-foot-by-15-foot rectangles scattered around downtown.

Still, city officials say it hasn't stopped aggressive panhandlers.
Commissioner Patty Sheehan said she was asked for money six times during a
recent three-block walk from City Hall to an Orange Avenue eatery.

"I've been very aggressively panhandled and followed. It gets pretty
scary," said Sheehan, who supports the undercover effort. "We don't want to
create an environment downtown where people don't feel safe."

Carol Sheaffer, president of Businesses of Eola and Thornton Park, said so
many panhandlers have started entering her husband's downtown law office to
ask for money that the office has begun locking the front door during
business hours. Women who work in the office are no longer comfortable
walking outside, she said.

"Panhandlers would follow them, and if they didn't give them money, yell
and curse at them," Sheaffer said.

Undercover tactics

The stings are organized by the downtown bike patrol, often using officers
from other parts of the city whom regular panhandlers wouldn't recognize.
At their busiest, Orlando cops were conducting the stings four to five
times a week, but they have dwindled to about once a week.

Arrested panhandlers are typically taken into custody and face as much as
60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Most plead guilty during their initial
court appearance and are usually sentenced to time served, which amounts to
a day or two in jail.

Police say they go undercover because it's difficult to arrest panhandlers
unless an officer witnesses the request for money. Unless a citizen is
willing to give a sworn statement and appear in court, it's a tough crime
to prove.

A few other cities -- such as Atlanta, Little Rock, Ark., and Roseville,
Calif. -- have used plainclothes officers to nab beggars, but it's not
clear whether any other department uses the tactic as regularly as Orlando.

Michael Scott, who has researched panhandling as director of the Center for
Problem-Oriented Policing, said using undercover cops may seem extreme, but
that panhandling can escalate into a widespread nuisance if not addressed.

"I would say that so long as it wasn't the only thing the police were doing
to address panhandling, it seems a reasonable thing to do," said Scott, a
law professor and former chief of the Lauderhill Police Department.

Dyer said that as the city tries to attract more businesses and visitors
downtown, it's important to create a safe environment. That includes
cracking down on panhandlers.

"They're people who make their living aggressively panhandling people in
downtown Orlando," Dyer said.




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