BENNINGTON — A proposed town ordinance to ban panhandling in public places has won the backing of Police Chief Paul Doucette.
The Select Board spent an hour this week discussing the ordinance.
If the ordinance is approved, aggressive attempts to solicit money, or panhandling, would be a civil violation punishable by a fine but not court action.
Opponents at the meeting Monday said the ordinance would infringe upon the free speech rights of citizens and could be misused by the police.
Supporters said it would protect the right of people to walk in the downtown without being harassed and would help business owners who believe panhandlers are intimidating potential customers.
Select Board member Thomas Jacobs moved to table the ordinance because he wanted some assurance that police would enforce it.
“I’ve heard a lot about the police being charged with the enforcement of this ordinance when it’s passed,” Jacobs said. “I haven’t heard from the police. I’d like to hear from the chief to tell us that this is needed, A, and too that it can be enforced, B, and, C, that there are no other alternatives.”
Doucette, who had earlier spoken publicly on Bennington radio station WBTN, said Wednesday: “This ordinance is necessary so that we have a tool that we can use to move people along. If they chose not to move along and not follow our direction or our orders, then we have the ability to serve them with a Vermont municipal violation complaint.”
Doucette said fining the offender $50 would show that the town is serious about preventing the kind of aggressive panhandling, which includes following people who have already declined to give money, that has been reported to the Select Board.
The ordinance would not be used broadly or to harass people, the chief said.
“I certainly have no intentions on directing my personnel to go out and be rude or obnoxious or use force to move people along,” Doucette said. “But we need this tool.”
He said panhandling has become more widespread in Bennington and the ordinance was “definitely” needed so people feel safe shopping on Main Street or Northside Drive.
Police would investigate before issuing a complaint, Doucette said.
“That’s why police officers in the state of Vermont are afforded the opportunity to use discretion,” he said. “If this is somebody that comes along and they’re really in need and they’re panhandling down by Price Chopper, then it’s going to be the officer’s responsibility to try to get them assistance, not just go down there, bull-headed, and issue a … complaint and tell them, ‘Get outta Bennington.’”
Doucette said he was proud of his officers’ abilities to try to resolve a situation without conflict.
He said he was concerned, however, that some panhandlers were not Bennington residents and were not spending the money on necessities as claimed.
Doucette will be at the Nov. 25 Select Board meeting, where the ordinance will be addressed again. People will be able to ask the chief questions.
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