The chief of police of New Hampshire’s largest city is urging people not to give money to panhandlers.
Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard wrote an open letter to the community last week titled "Panhandling - A Community Issue," and it’s stirred a lot of debate.
In the letter, Willard acknowledges panhandlers are within their rights to ask for money, but added that there’s no way to know if they will use it to buy drugs or alcohol.
He’s also raising safety concerns about panhandlers getting in the way of traffic, and motorists stopping to hand over money.
Chief Nick Willard spoke to NHPR’s Morning Edition about this issue.
Why did you write this memo?
I wrote the memo because I had a meeting with our local officials, the mayor and aldermen, as well as a lot of complaints from the citizens. The general feeling I get from them is they’re saying chief, you need to rid the streets of panhandlers. You have to arrest them or do something with them because what you’re doing right now isn’t working. I see it from a different approach. I do not believe they should be incarcerated. I don’t even believe they should necessarily be fined. I think there’s a social condition that leads a lot of people to panhandling and I want to have a greater discussion of what that is.
Has there been a rise in panhandling? And what are the root causes of that increase?
There has been a rise in panhandling, and just anecdotally from what we see, as the opioid crisis expands, we’re seeing more and more people begging to get money to buy their heroin or their fentanyl. And that’s legitimately from our officers, myself included, speaking to panhandlers, because we go to them, we give them the services card and say these are the places in the city of Manchester you can get services. You don’t need to be standing out here with a sign saying “I will work for food” when I can get you three square meals a day. So we have those conversations and a lot of them say they’re addicted to an opiate or they’re an alcoholic. So how do we treat that social issue in a more proactive, productive way than giving somebody $5 and that $5 may lead to somebody’s overdose or even somebody’s death. I want to have a greater discussion.
But by asking people to assume the worst, is there a risk at all in feeding into a stereotype?
No, I don’t think I’m feeding into a stereotype. I acknowledge in my letter that there are several root causes: homelessness, addiction, maybe an untreated mental illness. And there is a segment that does it because they make money. I know there’s one gentleman who owns a vehicle and a pretty decent home in another community, but that’s the rare individual. I’m trying to be careful not to paint everybody in the same brush. I’m definitely trying not to stereotype.
Some of the reaction I have seen about my letter and to not give to panhandlers I’m actually kind of disturbed by. Some of the things people are saying about these folks is unfortunate because I certainly didn’t want a backlash of anger from people to say some of the most vile things I’ve seen on social media about the panhandler and the person who feels they have to ask somebody for money. So it’s a delicate balance that I’m trying to do here. I don’t think we should be ticketing these folks incessantly and then ultimately they can’t pay their fines, and then next thing you know there’s an arrest warrant, and then they’re spending time in Valley Street Jail. So then you have an individual who’s nonviolent, and they’re in Valley Street Jail for what – because they’re asking people for money. So I want to have a greater discussion here and educate people about what’s going on.
Is the department changing how it enforces instances where motorists are stopping in traffic to hand over money?
Yeah, I think we took a pretty heavy-handed approach about three years ago. We are currently in litigation with the ACLU and I agree with the fact that they’re going to represent a panhandler for free speech. I think that’s what they should do. I have no issues with that. But we then have to look at what are better processes. One, educate the panhandler on where they can get services. And then educate the citizens you could be contributing to somebody who could overdose or even die. We’ve had 24 panhandlers overdose, some of them repeatedly. Six of them have died. So we know there is a potential this could lead to another human being’s death. And then we are going to allow them to stand on the street corner, allow them to stand in the median and not take any enforcement action in so long as that transaction is done safely. If it is not done safely, we will take enforcement action. If a panhandler runs out into traffic and causes vehicles to have to stop abruptly, or if a motorist stops at a green light as opposed to continuing on and impede the flow of traffic and potentially that’s a safety issue for the vehicle behind them or even the panhandler who goes out into the street. Aside from those two things, we’re just going to continue to educate and encourage the panhandlers to get the assistance readily available to them.
This is of course a national issue, and we’re seeing communities deal with this in different ways. Have you looked at how other departments are handling this?
I have, and it would appear a lot of them are getting tough, they’re passing panhandling laws. I know there was a city ordinance here that was passed that I didn’t even agree with back when I was an assistant chief about if you hand anybody an item from your vehicle and they’re on the sidewalk, that’s a violation. And I think that’s maybe what we’re currently litigating. So I think most communities are getting tough on the panhandlers themselves. And I think if we as a community give to the social service agencies that serve the panhandler and not directly to the panhandler, and be more proactive, and do more street outreach to help these folks in real time, I think the community is going to be better served.