Undercover APD operation targets aggressive panhandlers

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by KRIS BETTS / KVUE News and Photojournalist MATT OLSEN

Bio | Email | Follow: @KrisB_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on October 7, 2013 at 10:05 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 10 at 5:44 PM

AUSTIN -- Walking along the streets of downtown Austin, I am followed by undercover officers.

While standing at the intersection of 6th Street and Congress Avenue, a man in red carrying a pole walks within centimeters of me before walking away.

He stands in the street with the pole between his legs. Then I see him grab a woman walking by, who immediately calls police.

I ask her how often this sort of thing happens to her.

“Quite a bit often especially downtown. There are a lot of homeless people that get drunk and then they think they can do that,” she said.

Officers in uniform swarmed in, questioning the man and taking his name. They did not arrest him.

Two days later the same man, Edward Macintosh, was questioned by police again for aggressive panhandling. In the process he admitted to officers he was carrying cocaine.

Macintosh was arrested for drug possession.

It’s all part of an undercover Austin police operation that started in January. Downtown Commander Jason Dusterhoft says they have stepped up efforts over the past several weeks.

“Subjects just aren't saying ‘Can I have a dollar?’ They're getting aggressive with the person, they're swearing at the person, they're trying to intimidate the person. And they're following them to the ATM. Those are the things we're not going to tolerate down here."

This year 909 people have been arrested or cited downtown for aggressive solicitation. That's compared to 357 arrests and citations in 2012.

“We've had an increase in both citations and in arrests,” said Austin municipal judge Michael Coffey.

Coffey deals with hundreds of repeat offenders after they are ticketed by police.

“It’s frustrating from my point of view that sometimes it takes time to get behaviors to change. It's got to be a lot more frustrating to be living in the circumstances that many of the people live in."

Many times those offenders are fined or released from jail after one night and get arrested again on more serious charges.           

“A lot of these panhandling cases or aggressive solicitation cases can end up where they're assaulting the individual,” said Dusterhoft.

Cases like the one in July caught on a downtown camera where a man runs by, punches two women and stumbles off.

One of the women was four months pregnant.

Jonathan Price, 40, was arrested for the assault. Police say Price is mentally unstable, homeless and has a long history of violent arrests.

Trudi Walsh, a business owner on 6th Street, says the “Homeless use this as a toilet, so in the mornings we have to come and clean it." 

Walsh owns Kings Road Vintage and wrote a letter to Austin City Council begging them for help.

“We have a lot of homeless people that are mentally ill come into the store and they come into the back of the store and they pee on the carpet and it's been hard."

She blames the location of Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, the ARCH.

“The ARCH is right behind us so everybody's here, and they're all in one spot,” said Walsh.

There are no known plans to move the ARCH into a less centralized area, so for now Dusterhoft says APD will continue to be as proactive as they can. He says it’s working.

“Where these officers would go out in two hours and make 15, 19 and 20 arrests, now they're having a hard time getting six or seven. So the problem's still out there, we're still going to look at it, but we do think we made a pretty big difference."

If you feel threatened by an aggressive panhandler, police say to call 911 immediately.

In Austin panhandling is illegal during the day (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) at bus stops, crosswalks and near ATMs.

At night (7 p.m. to 7 a.m.) it is illegal to ask for money anywhere in the downtown central business district.

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