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City targets coercive or threatening panhandling

Specific forms of aggressive panhandling will be banned in Lawton, beginning today, under an amended ordinance that the City Council put into effect Tuesday.

While the decision to amend existing code was unanimous, the final decision didn't come until after Ward 5 Councilman Dwight Tanner noted that provisions already in city code made panhandling illegal and that council action at Tuesday's meeting also deleted provisions that exert some control over panhandling.

Ward 4 Councilman Jay Burk, who initiated the item, called Tuesday's action the "second part of more to come." He referred to council action in early February, also enacted with an emergency provision, that placed bans into effect for anyone who stands, sits or stays in roads and highways within the city and in medians, although some exceptions were included. City attorneys said then that the council could not ban panhandling in city streets, while allowing other groups (such as charitable organizations) to solicit funds that way.

Tuesday's decision was specifically aimed at panhandling, banning actions that block sidewalks, doorways, entryways or passage ways in public places; that require the person being solicited to take evasive action to avoid physical contact with the panhandler or any other person; or that mean engaging in conduct that is intimidating, threatening, coercive or obscene, and cause the person being solicited to reasonably fear for his or her safety. Panhandling has been defined to mean knowingly approaching, accosting or stopping another person for the purpose of requesting immediate donation of money or other gratuity.

Other provisions ban panhandling or soliciting employment, business contributions, or sales of any kind directly from the occupant of any vehicle traveling on a city street when it means stepping into the street to complete the transaction, or when vehicles cannot safely move into a parking area. The ordinance also clarifies that people cannot be solicited while at an automatic teller machine while money is being withdrawn, .

Burk said the council's decision will provide an answer for residents who have complained about panhandling so aggressive that they are fearful or have begun avoiding locations where panhandlers are known to be. He noted that at a city event held last week, a panhandler was approaching participants after dark, sometimes appearing out of bushes and startling people. He said Tuesday's action would address those problem areas, adding "but we're not done."

Burk said the third step in the city's multi-pronged approach to controlling a problem that has been rising in Lawton and other Oklahoma cities will come in the form of "zones" for panhandling.

Tuesday's action also removes some provisions already on the books, including one that makes it illegal to engage in panhandling at any location in the city after dark, at a bus stop, or in groups of two or more.

The Lawton Constitution

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