UTPD Chief: easing aggressive panhandling rules will endanger students

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas at Austin’s police chief is urging Austin city leaders to leave the city’s current rules about panhandling and sleeping in public places alone. 

Chief David Carter sent a letter Friday to Mayor Steve Adler and members of the City Council. 

Thursday, the council decided to postpone a vote on amendments to city ordinances that would ease restrictions on panhandling and the city’s “no sit/no lie” rules and camping rules.

Those ordinances were originally passed in 2005 and were later updated in 2011.

The first was made to keep people from sitting or lying down in right of ways and sidewalks downtown. Exceptions to this ordinance were made for people who have disabilities or are experiencing medical emergencies.

The second ordinance bans aggressive solicitation; panhandling near bus stops, schools, ATMs or banks; and an overnight ban of panhandling downtown.

  • You can read Austin’s Code of Ordinances here

“There are current laws in the books that make it that somebody could wind up getting arrested for the simple fact that they’re sleeping in the car with their kids because they don’t have anywhere to live. That just isn’t right,” said City Council Member Greg Casar. 

The changes Casar and other supporters are proposing would make it so that people can sleep in public places downtown or near UT Austin as long as they are not endangering themselves or others and as long as they’re not blocking access. 

“If a person isn’t posing any public threat, we shouldn’t call that a criminal violation,” Casar said. 

The amendments also suggest changing the panhandling ordinance. They want to ease restrictions where people can ask for money. Aggressive panhandling, defined clearly in the current code, as well as the amendments, remains prohibited. 

Chief of the University of Austin Police Department David Carter released a statement Friday denouncing the city council vote to repeal these ordinances saying that removing these ordinances would run counter to his department’s mission to ensure the safety of the community and UT students. 

“It is imperative the Austin Police Department has the ability to address chaos and uncivil behavior in areas that affect The University of Texas at Austin whether west of campus or downtown,” added Carter.

Carter told KXAN the rules are in place for a reason. “It’s important that the city recognize that sometimes it’s better to get in front of those issues before they become major crimes,” he said.

He said students and staff often deal with aggressive panhandling. 

“We can go back as recent as 2016 and see the tragedy that occurred on our campus,” Carter explained. “We have other anecdotes of issues occurring off campus.”

Rising junior and officer of Safehorns Kacey Vandervort said she was chased by a man demanding her backpack. 

“I was scared, honestly,” she said.

Vandervort then went on to say she hears similar experiences from others on and off campus.

“I would say it’s almost on a weekly basis that someone is getting chased, touched, hit,” she said. 

Vandervort fears the problems will get worse if the city loosens its restrictions. 

Carter was also concerned easing the “no camping” rule would lead to more people sleeping in public places near UT. 

“We cannot afford to see that. We do not want to see that happen on Guadalupe,” Carter said. “That is a contrary to a safe community from our perspective.” 

Vandervort said before the city votes on anything, it should have a safety plan first.

In a letter she wrote Friday, she explained:

I have worked alongside other Safe Horns students to come up with a “Longhorn-zone” plan that I think would greatly improve campus and West Campus. This model is based on the one in place at University of Southern California’s that is currently very effective in protecting students on and off campus in spite of the university’s situation in the large city of Los Angeles.

She also said there should be cameras on and off campus that are monitored 24/7 and improved lighting.

The City Council is still working on the amendments, so they could always change. Mayor Adler said he wants to find a fair balance between not criminalizing homelessness and not jeopardizing public safety. 

The vote is, for now, scheduled for June 20th.

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