Suit claims city police harass the homeless ACLU also cites downtown businesses

August 19, 1993|By Laura Lippman and Marcia Myers | Laura Lippman and Marcia Myers,Staff Writers Staff writer Michael James contributed to this article.

The escalating battle between Baltimore's homeless and those who bristle at their presence moved to federal court yesterday, with a lawsuit that accuses police and the downtown business community of trying to drive street people away from the area's tourist attractions.

The suit, similar to other legal actions nationwide, claims that police officers threaten to arrest homeless people and panhandlers who are doing nothing more than sleeping, eating, talking, or holding a cardboard sign or a paper cup in a public place.

"Baltimore, like every other city in the country, is struggling with what to do about people who cause anxiety among mainstream citizens and among tourists," said Susan Goering, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed the suit on behalf of four men and the city's 2,500 homeless.

"That's a tough question. But it is not acceptable to abridge constitu

tional rights of any citizens in the interest of making the rest of us feel comfortable," she said. "That's what this is about, a comfort level."

The lawsuit comes at a time when anecdotal information suggests that there are more arrests, especially of panhandlers. Lawyers who represent the homeless say they are going to court more often to defend clients on charges of loitering, soliciting and resisting arrest.

Ms. Goering said a young, homeless man was reading a book in the Inner Harbor recently, when a police officer asked for his identification, then told him to move along. When the young man challenged the order, the officer threatened to arrest him.

"He has enough problems, he moved," Ms. Goering said.

Homeless advocates also suggested that police targeted the homeless and panhandlers in the week before the All-Star game last month, when the national spotlight was on the city and its new ballpark, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"Our impression is that there was sort of a sweep to get undesirables out," Ms. Goering said.

However, police spokesman Sam Ringgold said the department has no policy targeting the homeless, although there is concern about aggressive panhandlers, or people who break other laws while panhandling, such as obstructing traffic.

Pressure from public

A police officer on patrol at the Inner Harbor yesterday, who declined to give his name for fear of being punished for speaking about the pending lawsuit, said the pressure for arrests comes not from the department, but the public.

"People, especially the tourists down here, don't like thpanhandlers. And we respond to public concerns," the officer said. "Citizens are constantly complaining about being hassled by beggars, so we tell them [the beggars] to move along. If we have problems, we'll arrest someone. I don't think that's unreasonable."

But a security officer for the Rouse Co., which operates the Light and Pratt Street Pavilions, said he didn't think beggars posed any problems for the Inner Harbor area.

"We get an occasional crazy person, but for the most part they stay in line. We don't have too many problems with them," said the officer, who declined to identify himself because company policy forbids guards from speaking to the press.

Baltimore's homeless and panhandling problem has always seemed slight when compared with Washington and New York. Yet, a panhandler with a reputation for being aggressive was stabbed to death during a confrontation with a man and woman, blocks from the Inner Harbor. Other panhandlers here say they are verbally abused and, occasionally, assaulted.

Nationwide, there have been similar lawsuits -- in New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Reno, Nev. -- as lawyers for the homeless have attempted to secure their rights to congregate or panhandle in certain areas.

Mixed results

So far, results are mixed. Beggars' speech was protected in New York, as long as they stayed out of the subways. In Santa Ana, Calif., a Superior Court judge ruled cities had the right to ban camping on public property. And the Reno case was resolved with an out-of-court settlement in which the city agreed to provide more services and train police officers to be sensitive.

But the Baltimore suit is different, for it also names the Downtown Partnership and the special tax district it manages, the Downtown Management Authority. Businesses pay the authority additional taxes for services, such as the downtown patrols that started this spring.

"We feel [the lawsuit] is misinformed and it does not reflect what our conduct is," said Laurie Schwartz, president of Downtown Partnership Inc. "We do not have a policy of sweeping out or interfering with homeless people downtown."

Ms. Schwartz said the guides go through an intensive training session and are suppose to instruct homeless people about services that can help them, such as shelters and soup kitchens. The guides will step in, she said, if they see aggressive panhandling -- generally defined as threatening or pursuing someone who does not want to give money.

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