022019-nws-city council

The Rapid City Council unanimously voted Tuesday evening to approve an ordinance aimed at regulating aggressive panhandling and other behavior in the downtown area. 

Rapid City may adopt new laws aimed at regulating behavior that's considered a public safety risk. 

The Legal and Finance Committee unanimously voted Wednesday to repeal the city's current "aggressive solicitation" ordinance and replace it with an "unlawful behavior" in public places ordinance. It would also address unlawful obstructions in public rights-of-way. To go into effect, the change must be approved by the entire city council, which will consider it Tuesday.

City Attorney Joel Landeen believes the current ordinance violates the right to free speech in the U.S. Constitution, said Kinsley Groote, assistant city attorney. As a result, it hasn't been enforced in several years, according to  Darrell Shoemaker, spokesman for the city.

"We're looking at behaviors that are problematic in these public spaces, and it's something that's not going to be based on speech, it's just going to be based upon conduct," Groote said when explaining the difference between the ordinances. 

Now, aggressive panhandling and asking for money after dark and near ATMs, at building entrances and other locations is considered a violation. The ordinance also bans people from asking for money while under the influence. 

The proposed ordinance makes it illegal to engage in actions that make someone fear for their life or property within 30 feet of a vehicle or ATM. It also make it a violation to create a "roadside distraction" that impacts traffic or creates a public safety issue. Intimidating or threatening people to make them hand over property would also be a violation of the proposed ordinance.

The new rights-of-way law also would make it illegal for intoxicated people to hinder or obstruct people's movements in public areas.

It would not be illegal for someone to ask for money, said Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris, but it would be a violation if they blocked someone's way in order to solicit money, for example. 

The purpose is to "to keep the citizens safe so they don't feel like they need to go out of their way, clutch their pursues in an uncomfortable way because they're afraid that they have to give their money over," Groote said. 

Jegeris stressed that police officers will do everything they can to resolve a situation through a conversation, or getting them help at the Care Campus.

"But we require the enforceability for those who are non-compliant with us and believe it or not, that is frequent, we do get a lot of push back," he said, pointing to retail parking lots and highway entries and exits as problem areas.

If someone is charged and found guilty, Groote told the Journal, they could be fined up to $500 and spend up to 30 days in jail, the maximum penalties for violating any city ordinance. But she said they would likely have to pay $122.50 — a $60 fine and $62.50 in court costs — and be given suspended jail time unless they are a habitual offender.

"When a defendant gets into court, we try to work with them to see what other programming could help keep the behavior from occurring again. So, it isn’t just about a fine, court costs or jail time. We want to help the defendant get assistance and get on the right track," Groote said.

The proposed ordinance should "significantly change the tone in the downtown area" along with the new Care Campus and quality of life unit, Jegeris said.

Pedestrians and business owners have complained about threatening people downtown, Lt. Scott Sitts said after the committee meeting.

Sitts, who oversees the Quality of Life unit, said citations and arrests will only occur in "rare circumstances when everything else fails."

He estimated that more than 90 percent of complaints will be able to be handled without enforcement efforts.

Sitts said that while certain state laws, such as disorderly conduct, stalking and assault, could cover some of the behavior, it's a "custom" for cities to have their own ordinances on the books. 

When asked how police would judge whether an action is truly threatening when it could be based on stereotypes, Sitts said that the actions must be based on threatening behavior.

"If you're not threatened by them, and they're not threatening you" it doesn't count, he said.

He said a group of men walking down the street at night toward a woman wouldn't be illegal, but if they start to run toward the woman and yell threats at her, it would be.

A group of intoxicated people speaking loudly in the daytime would also not be illegal, he said.

"We've adopted it towards behavior and not towards speech," Sitts said of the proposed ordinance. 

"This really goes against the conversations" and direction the police department has been going in, said Natalie Stites Means of One Rapid City, a social justice advocacy group. Means said the ordinance also seems to go against the city and county's grants used to improve policing and fight mass incarceration. "This is really contrary," she said. 

Ramona Herrington, founder of One Rapid City, said she'd like to see data that shows there are incidents that makes the new ordinances necessary. 

Means said officers should be able to rely on existing state laws, such as disorderly conduct, to take care of threatening people, and both women said they'd prefer if the city focused on drug and mental health treatment, housing and other issues. 

"The issue is a lot of untreated addiction and trauma, Means said. The city is trying to create a false image for tourists, hiding the reality of a lack of social services, she said. 

Herrington said there should be an addiction center that's specifically aimed at helping Native Americans, and Means suggested that the city look into businesses that sell alcohol to drunken individuals and known alcoholics. 

Herrington said the ordinance is about regulating homeless and Native people. "They just want us out of sight, out of mind," she said. 

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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