It's a familiar story at City Hall: An ambitious politician sees a softy mayor and a city fed up with crime and dirty streets. Eyeing a potential vacancy at the top of city government in a few years, he introduces a flourish of tough-on-crime civility laws, some drawing the ire of liberals and advocates for the poor, and pushes the controversial bills through the city council. In the 1990s, the man doing this was City Attorney Mark Sidran.
Cut to 2010: City council member Tim Burgess chairs the council's public safety committee, a catchall for complaints about crime. A wave of shootings, including the murder of a Seattle cop, and a rise in burglaries at the bottom of the recession only exacerbate the sense that Seattle is heading down a dangerous path. Burgess, a former police officer with widely known aspirations to be mayor, presents a vision for a safer city: more police, more foot patrols, more services, and—before any of those are enacted—an ordinance that would create a $50 fine for aggressive solicitation. Naturally, his proposal has critics.
"The problem is street disorder in our downtown core," Burgess says, explaining why the law is necessary (echoing Sidran, coincidentally, who warned of "increasing disorder" when pushing laws to control street people and ban sitting on the sidewalk).
"What Burgess is doing is putting into law what we consider in the Northwest to be good, polite manners," says George Allen, the senior vice president of government relations for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
To make his case to his colleagues on the city council, Burgess sent them polls in late February about downtown safety: Two-thirds of downtown residents are concerned about aggressive panhandling, and one-quarter of Seattle residents avoid downtown due to safety concerns.
"We know the problems are increasing from data we collect," says Jon Scholes, policy director for the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), which commissioned the poll on the fears of downtown residents. "It's pretty clear we are headed in the wrong direction."
The poll actually showed that between 2007 and 2009, residents' extreme concerns about aggressive panhandling in the downtown core dropped from 57 percent to 32 percent, public-drunkenness concerns fell from 42 percent to 20 percent, and concern about loitering by youth decreased from 41 percent to 19 percent. The DSA adds, "Over the last three years, there has been a slight decrease in levels of extreme concerns for all issues" with "the largest improvements... in the areas of aggressive panhandlers."
Alison Eisinger, director for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, met with Burgess on March 8. "I was disappointed to hear that Council Member Burgess is quite unable to explain the actual need for this legislation or the reason why the existing legislation isn't sufficient," she says.
Asked about these numbers, Burgess says, "We have made some progress, but we still have a ways to go." According to Seattle Police Department statistics released in February, serious crime did rise 7 percent in 2009 (following a 40-year low in 2008). He says the bill "will allow us to establish a new standard of behavior."
Unrelenting solicitors and intimidating beggars can be menacing—even to the most hardened city dweller. Burgess provided the city council with two dozen e-mails from locals who felt uncomfortable downtown and several letters from convention visitors who complained that their guests encountered hostile beggars.
One visitor complained in a letter to Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau that a panhandler "got right into my client's face and we finally had to walk to the other side of the street for him to leave us alone." Another convention attendee wrote, "I was approached constantly by panhandlers in the downtown area... A nice visit to your new public library off of Fifth turned into an excuse for strange people to ask me strange questions."
Burgess explains, "The ordinance will give our police officers another tool to help them inform, educate, and caution individuals about aggressive solicitation. And in rare cases, it will give the opportunity to issue a citation."
The language of the aggressive-solicitation bill, which Burgess introduced to the city council on March 8, would create a new class of civil penalty. Aggressive begging is already a criminal offense, but the law put forth by Burgess has a broader impact. The proposed law applies equally to beggars, Greenpeace canvassers, and Girl Scout cookie sellers. An officer could ticket a person specifically for "engaging in intimidating conduct while soliciting," which includes blocking someone's path while asking for money, repeatedly soliciting a person who has given a negative response while remaining within 15 feet of the person, or—the clause that has drawn the most scrutiny—soliciting people from within 15 feet while they use or immediately after they use an ATM or pay parking station.
As a result, homeless activists and civil-liberties advocates are vowing to fight Burgess. Several camps—the ACLU, the Defender Association, Real Change, WashPIRG, and other members of the city council—have contacted Burgess with concerns or say they will seek changes to the proposal.
"There is no evidence that aggressive panhandling is a criminal problem in downtown," says Tim Harris, executive director for the newspaper Real Change. Indeed, Burgess acknowledges the city prosecutes only 10 cases annually of aggressive begging.
ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig warns that the broadly worded law "can give individual police officers too much discretion" to enforce the law disparately on indigent and homeless people.
"Some individuals say this is an attack on the homeless or an attempt to criminalize being homeless, and that is in no way our intent," Burgess says. To his credit, Burgess had floated a more severe idea last summer, which would have banned solicitors at intersections and after dark. The new, milder proposal, he says, "does not target the homeless or disparage them in any way."
Asked who then—if not the homeless—the law is aimed at, Burgess says the law is intended to restrict professional aggressive beggars, such as "drug traffickers" and "street criminals who are hustling."
Downtown business interests, meanwhile, seem largely concerned with nonprofit workers armed with clipboards.
"The people who are soliciting money for the organizations, whether they are for the environment, children, or animals, have increased in the last few years," says Scholes of the DSA. "They are what we hear a lot about, really. People... walk through the gauntlet and feel like they are continually harassed even after saying, 'No, thank you.'"
Blair Anundson, lead advocate of the environmental lobby group WashPIRG, which often posts canvassers downtown, says he doesn't see his staff running afoul of the law. But he may testify against the bill when it goes before the council's public safety committee on March 17, citing concerns with misplaced priorities for dealing with the poor and impacts on all canvassers.
"The problem with the ordinance is that if someone wanted to go after our canvassers, if they don't like our political agenda, for instance, they could," Anundson says.
Burgess says of his proposal: "I don't see it being applied to political canvassers or Girl Scout cookie sellers."
He argues that the law's ultimate value is deterring aggressive solicitation, and he cites a law in Tacoma that, since being enacted in 2007, hasn't resulted in a single infraction because it's worked so well.
Council Member Sally Bagshaw, a downtown resident for the past 10 years, sincerely believes Burgess is trying "to improve things downtown," but she is concerned the infraction could escalate to a burden on the criminal justice system and onerous penalties. Although an officer may ticket an aggressive solicitor, there is "virtually a 100 percent chance" the suspect—who may be high on drugs or mentally impaired—will ignore the ticket, Bagshaw says. Failing to pay the $50 fine or appear before a judge could result in a bench warrant, which could then result in jail or a misdemeanor conviction.
"I just know that what we are trying to do is make a more civil society, and I am not convinced at this very minute that we are there with this legislation," Bagshaw says. She says more foot patrols from uniformed officers, which Burgess's proposal would not provide, may solve 90 percent of the problem. "I want to address this without a big fight with us and the ACLU or the Defender Association," says Bagshaw. (For its part, the Defender Association tallied the 24 constituent e-mails Burgess cited as evidence of the need for the new law. The organization found the law would address only five of the complaints, it may address two of the complaints, and is unlikely to address the remaining majority of the complaints.)
Burgess isn't yet sure if he will hold a special public hearing on his proposal—or only a public comment period at a committee meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 17. He says he's "open" to modifying the law. Which seems wise, since recent history tells us what can happen when a politician pushes a civility law that goes too far and then tries to run for mayor.
After all, Sidran lost.
This article has been updated since its original publication.