KILLEEN - A long-running problem of panhandlers approaching people for money has aggravated residents and city leaders to the point where the council is asking for tougher enforcement of their ordinance. The ordinance requires a permit for panhandlers to be out at intersections, but no one has applied for a permit as far back as anyone can remember.
"The ordinance itself is not changing, because it actually works if there's enforcement," said JoAnn Purser, a council member. "I think what we've seen now is the police realize the citizens don't want to be approached anymore, we're tired of warning these same people over and over again, and what we'd like to see is citations and arrests."
The most frequent offenders are often from out-of-town charity organizations. The police department says last year, they arrested six people, issued 14 citations, and gave warnings to more than 20 people.
Kathy Gilmore, a former mayor pro-tem, saw women panhandling over the long weekend in February. Kenny Wells, a councilman, said he saw them as well, holding children as they darted in and out of traffic.
Gilmore said, "Every time the light would change, they would go and tap on people's windows, asking them to roll their windows down and ask for money. That really concerns me because I think that's such a dangerous situation, not only for them, but for the people in the cars."
Gilmore said perhaps code enforcement officers should have weekend shifts and get weekdays off in order to catch the offenders who mostly show up on Saturdays and Sundays. Also, she suggested having a hotline for residents to call when they spot panhandlers.
"If something does happen to someone," she said, "the city will be sued. That's usually the first thing that happens. They want to sue somebody. And when that happens, they sue the taxpayers."
A spokesperson for the Killeen Police Department, Carroll Smith, said, "They could get seriously hurt or even die from a vehicle hitting them. It's mainly for their safety."
Smith said the police chief is now looking at different options and reviewing enforcement policies. For now, their policy is still to give a warning first, then issue a citation, then finally arrest the person.
The city ordinance states that permits must be obtained and only for use during four specific weeks of the year. Applicants need to pay a $50 registration fee the first time they apply in a calendar year, and add $10 for each individual who will be on the street. Charity organizations may be exempt from the $50 fee.
In addition, groups need to obtain $1 million liability insurance for each individual, as well as $5 million insurance for each occasion they are panhandling.
"We're ready to send a clear message," said Purser. "I'd love for the police chief to come up with some sort of campaign that our police officers can enforce and know that we have a zero tolerance...I'd like them to stop warning people and to start citing them and start arresting on the spot."
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