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Gipson urges legislation to target panhandlers

Buffalo's top law enforcement officer is urging the Common Council to pass a new law that would make it easier for police officers to crack down on panhandlers.

The endorsement from Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson and City Hall legal experts would appear to set the stage for Council approval of the law at Tuesday's meeting.

Gipson said he has had firsthand encounters with panhandlers who use tactics that could intimidate some people.

"I myself have been approached on numerous occasions, particularly coming out of an ATM," said Gipson, adding that he can imagine how nervous this might make a woman who leaves an automated teller machine at dusk.

Buffalo already has laws that target panhandling, but city officials have long complained that they're too broad to allow for effective enforcement. Questions also have surfaced based on court cases in other regions as to whether the city might have difficulty enforcing current laws.

The revised ordinance would provide some specific "teeth" for cracking down on in-your-face beggars, said sponsor Joseph Golombek Jr., the Council's North District representative.

"Aggressive" panhandling would be banned in any public place, with aggression spelled out in six categories. One example would ban physical contact of any kind -- even tapping someone's shoulder. In fact, a solicitor could not be within arm's length of a person without his or her consent.

It also would be illegal to panhandle near ATMs, banks, off-street parking areas or in bus shelters. What's more, panhandlers would not be allowed to solicit people who are inside vehicles.

First offenses would carry fines of up to $250, said Assistant Corporation Counsel Peter Savage III, the city attorney who researched and drafted the proposed ordinance. Panhandlers who are convicted more than once over a 12-month period could face up to 15 days in jail.

Golombek believes panhandling problems have intensified in Buffalo over the years, adding that some solicitors have become more intimidating.

"They're even hanging out around churches and hitting up senior citizens for money when they leave Mass," he lamented.

He cited one extreme incident in January involving a panhandler who allegedly attacked a Hertel Avenue convenience store clerk after he was asked to leave, knocking out one of the victim's teeth.

To combat the growing problem, Golombek initially toyed with plans to force panhandlers to get city licenses and wear identification tags. But after more than two months of study that included a review of panhandling laws in other localities, Golombek settled on the plan that the Council is expected to approve Tuesday.

The Council's Legislation Committee already has recommended its passage.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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