Despite opposition during public comment, the Rapid City Council voted 8-0 Tuesday night in favor of an ordinance aimed at regulating aggressive panhandling and other behavior in the downtown area.
The unanimous vote repeals the city's "aggressive solicitation" ordinance and replaces it with an "unlawful behavior" in public places ordinance. The vote also tweaked the unlawful obstructions in public rights-of way ordinance.
The move came after the Legal and Finance Committee unanimously approved the changes last week. In order to be officially adopted, the ordinance needs to be approved after a second reading at the March 4 city council meeting.
Council members cited the concerns of downtown business owners and said they have confidence that the ordinance will only target a person's behavior and not race, and only be enforced as a last resort.
While the unlawful behavior ordinance never mentions panhandling or soliciting, it's clear from discussions at the committee and council meetings the city wants to regulate that activity when it gets aggressive.
One man who spoke in favor of the ordinance said he thinks it will help tourists have a better experience while visiting Rapid City.
Dan Senftner, president of Destination Rapid City, said as someone who lives and works downtown, he never feels afraid when he goes out. But he said he knows that some residents and tourists have felt uncomfortable in the downtown area.
Senftner said the ordinance doesn’t target any particular group of people, and that there are many resources for people who want help.
“We need a behavioral change,” he said.
About 10 people spoke against the ordinance, saying it’s targeting the homeless and Native Americans, and that the city should focus on social services, not criminalization, for people struggling with housing, unemployment and drugs.
Natalie Stites Means called the ordinance “transparently racist.” She said homeless people are “extremely vulnerable” and the city should instead focus on improving the “absolute failure” of social services.
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The ordinance is “very vague and open to interpretation,” said Anna Robinson. She said she doubts the rules would be applied to everyone, such as Sturgis Rally attendees, and not just homeless people.
Karissa Loewen said the ordinance is “entirely fear-based” and there are already state laws to address “behavior that is actually criminal.”
Robert Horse Stands Waiting, a paralegal, said the ordinance seems to be based on feelings, and police officers’ time would be better spent on fighting real crime.
Rapid City Attorney Joel Landeen said the current ordinance hasn’t been enforced in several years since it likely violates the right to free speech whereas the new one is “focused completely on behaviors and action.”
The old ordinance banned aggressive panhandling and asking for money after dark and near ATMs, at building entrances and other locations. It also banned asking for money while under the influence.
The new unlawful behavior 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 says it's illegal to create a "roadside distraction" that impacts traffic or creates a public safety issue. Intimidating or threatening people to make them hand over property is also banned.
The new rights-of-way law makes it illegal for intoxicated people to hinder or obstruct people's movements in public areas.
Landeen admitted that some state laws, such as disorderly conduct, could cover some of the behavior addressed in the new ordinance. But he said it’s not unusual for city ordinances to overlap with state laws and “it’s a tool in the toolbox” for police.
Karl Jegeris, chief of the Rapid City police, said people breaking the ordinance will only be arrested “when all other alternatives are not available” and they are “severely aggressive.” Alternatives to arrest could range from having a conversation to taking someone to the Care Campus.
Those found guilty of violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500 and spend up to 30 days in jail, the maximum penalties for breaking any city ordinance, Kinsley Groote, assistant city attorney, previously said. 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.