The Durango City Council approved two laws addressing panhandling Tuesday, giving the Durango Police Department the authority to start enforcing them in the middle of June.
All three councilors in attendance, Mayor Dean Brookie, Dick White and Christina Rinderle backed the laws that will prohibit aggressive panhandling and ban anyone from lingering on certain medians.
The laws replace an older ordinance police stopped enforcing in fall 2014 after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, which pointed out the blanket prohibition on loitering for purposes of begging was a violation of free speech.
Since then, panhandling has become more visible along Main Avenue and on certain high-traffic intersections.
Rinderle is hopeful residents and tourists will feel safer after the laws go into effect in mid-June. In addition, police officers, normally assigned to schools, will be more visible downtown this summer to help address any concerns about panhandling, she said.
“We really want to make Durango a safe place for everybody,” Rinderle said.
Beginning June 17, it will be illegal for any panhandler to touch, threaten or try to start a fight with passers-by. They also are prohibited from blocking the sidewalk.
A previously discussed prohibition on asking for money where there would be a captive audience near an ATM or at a box office was not included.
City Attorney Dirk Nelson said he could not find enough instances of this kind of panhandling to justify including a specific provision against it.
The second ordinance against standing on certain medians also was adjusted from it’s conception. The city listed medians where lingering would be prohibited based on testimony about on-going safety problems at those locations.
Police Chief Jim Spratlen has testified in front of City Council about panhandlers stepping into traffic and vehicles stopping at a green light to give to panhandlers at the locations listed in the ordinance.
John Krieger, a representative for the ACLU in Colorado, said the group has read the laws, and it has concerns about the ordinance on medians.
“We have real suspicions the law, once it’s enacted, it will be used exclusively against people living in poverty,” he said.
The ACLU will be watching how the Durango police enforce the law, he said.
However, Nelson said the city listed specific medians in the law in order to be fair.
Brookie also felt the law was unbiased because it applies to everyone.
“Our intent is not to wipe out opportunities for panhandling; we understand that’s their right,” he said.
Another issue of interest to the City Council is illegal camping after two recent bear attacks on homeless men, Brookie said. He hopes the city can work with the Division of Wildlife and La Plata County on a solution, but there are no specific plans yet.