URBANA — City officials say an 18-month-old ordinance has successfully minimized aggressive forms of panhandling, particularly in the southeast part of the city.
Residents of that area in 2011 called on city officials to act after they felt panhandling in their neighborhoods had gotten out of hand. The city council approved a law banning "aggressive solicitation" to much controversy that summer.
Opponents of the ordinance said it infringed on civil liberties and limited the ability of the poorest people to ask their neighbors for help. They also worried it was too punitive — an aggressive-solicitation ticket carries a $50 fine, to be paid by the person who was asking for money in the first place.
But in an 18-month report on the new law required by the ordinance itself, Police Chief Patrick Connolly said "the punitive portion of this is almost nonexistent."
Two people have been ticketed for aggressive panhandling since the ordinance became active 18 months ago, Connolly said. Police wrote their first ticket in December 2011 to a man who previously had been banned from a pharmacy and later a grocery store on South Philo Road.
The second was issued in June 2012 to a man who had been warned twice before "for aggressively approaching several citizens at intersections and in parking lots, knocking on their windows and demanding money from them," Connolly said.
More people have been warned — in approving the ordinance in 2011, city officials agreed that police should first issue a warning before writing a ticket.
Complaints of aggressive panhandling have increased since the ordinance took effect. In 2010, before police could write tickets to solicitors, they received 53 complaints.
Connolly said that number increased to 74 complaints in 2011 and 88 calls in 2012. But that is not necessarily indicative of a higher number of occurrences. Connolly said police have been working with business owners to be more proactive in addressing problematic panhandling.
The law does not ban all forms of panhandling — just those defined as "aggressive." That includes panhandling in groups of two or more, blocking someone's path or following them after they have denied an initial request for money, touching that person, using "profane or abusive" language, or making any statement or gesture that would imply harm if that person denies a request for money.
The ordinance also bans all forms of solicitation — aggressive or not — within 20 feet of ATMs or banks, and it allows officers to issue tickets to solicitors on private property if the property owner has posted "no solicitation" signs.
"The posting of the notices made a lot in the business community feel more comfortable," Connolly said. "People frequenting the establishments felt more comfortable."
The law was the focus of hours' worth of public debate during multiple meetings in July and August 2011, but no one publicly addressed the 18-month report as it was presented to the Urbana City Council this week.
Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, represents many of the people who called for city officials to address aggressive panhandling, and she said she has not heard anything either.
"I've had zero complaints this year compared to many before we implemented this ordinance," Marlin said.