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City to strengthen panhandling ordinance

After a series of complaints from downtown merchants, the City of LaGrange is taking measures to prohibit aggressive panhandling in the city. 

The LaGrange City Council held its first reading on an ordinance to prohibit aggressive solicitation on Tuesday. While the updated ordinance would not prohibit panhandling, it would make it unlawful for someone asking for donations to block the path of a person being solicited, continue to solicit after the person has said no, intentionally touch the person they are soliciting or make gestures, statements or other communication deemed as threatening. There are additional prohibitions on where solicitation is permitted and false claims.

 “I have probably in the last three or four months received more complaints than I have in the previous two years, so apparently, we’ve got some individuals who are problematic in the downtown area specifically, but not solely,” Public Safety Chief Lou Dekmar said. “Essentially what it does is it now prohibits the type of behavior that people want to avoid, which is folks that when you wave them off, they continue to follow them, continue to solicit and trail them into stores or restaurants.”

Dekmar said that LaGrange Police Department officers will be asked to use good judgement in their enforcement of the ordinance, and the ordinance is meant to stop those who regularly make people visiting downtown uncomfortable. Anyone arrested under the ordinance would face a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and six months.

According to Dekmar, the proposed ordinance was put together after surveying several cities at the request of the Downtown LaGrange Development Authority. Council Member LeGree McCamey has spoken on the concerns raised by downtown merchants regarding aggressive panhandling in previous meetings. 

One of the concerns expressed throughout discussions was perceived safety. A citizen at the work session asked if something could be done about aggressive solicitors under vagrancy laws. However, following a Supreme Court Case in 1962 that decided that status crimes violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because the defendant is punished for unfortunate circumstances beyond their control, vagrancy is not a prosecutable offense. Dekmar noted that the LPD works to help people, including the homeless, who need help, and the proposed ordinance would balance that effort.

“We’ve been working with the homeless coalition to address that [issue of homeless people in LaGrange], and we’ve also worked with nonprofits in the faith community because we understand that these folks need services,” Dekmar said. “That is the challenge, to get them into the services, but this ordinance will address that behavior if they refuse services, and they refuse the warning to quit being involved in that behavior.”

The LaGrange City Council will consider the ordinance further on Sept. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at 208 Ridley Avenue.