Cedar Rapids panhandling proposal more wide than narrow

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If a new pedestrian safety ordinance was as narrowly crafted as Cedar Rapids officials claim it is, we’d be more apt to support it.

City Council members on Tuesday passed the first reading of the proposed ordinance, which replaces two sections of traffic regulation code with one new five-part entry. Focusing on one aspect of the proposal, council members described the approach as targeted. But by doing so they largely ignored, or perhaps did not understand, that the other four portions constitute a de facto citywide ban on roadside panhandling — punishable in some cases by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $625 — as well as demonstrations that “intentionally impede or obstruct vehicular or pedestrian travel or traffic without lawful authority.”

The city highlighted the establishment of pedestrian-free zones at seven intersections, primarily adjacent to Interstate 380 ramps. If the ordinance becomes law, signs will alert pedestrians of prohibition on sitting, walking, standing and entering these areas. City officials anticipate the intersection list to change over time, with improved intersections removed and others added as they are identified.

But the short list of intersections is only one aspect of the proposed changes.

Pedestrians, including panhandlers, no longer will be allowed to occupy medians on city streets at controlled intersections. They also will not be allowed to enter any roadway to get in a vehicle or exchange goods. The new ordinance creates a situation in which panhandlers cannot legally interact with vehicle occupants. They can solicit at roadside, but have no legal way of retrieving.

A police department representative explained officers likely will lie in wait, recording panhandlers in an effort to enforce the proposed new law. We’re unconvinced this is the best use of scant resources.

And while acknowledging our own unease with panhandlers, we question whether existing pedestrian-traffic safety data gives rise to this level of regulation.

Police calls related to panhandling have grown by 63 percent since 2012, but a closer look at the numbers shows an average of one such call every other day. And, according to police data, only a quarter of those calls involve traffic safety issues. In 2014, police responded to a peak of 48 such calls, or about one a week.

There have been 12 vehicle-pedestrian incidents in Cedar Rapids this year.

Most recently, an elderly woman was struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross Collins Road NE near Lindale Mall. In May another elderly woman was struck while in the crosswalk at Sixth Street and 15th Avenue SW, later dying as a result of her injuries.

Neither of those intersections, or others that repeatedly top the city’s list of most dangerous, have been designated as pedestrian-free zones. A common thread among the intersections the city identified it seems, in addition to interstate proximity, is the presence of panhandlers.

For about a decade, city officials have considered various ways to end or curtail panhandling. Court decisions labeling the activity as a form of speech have stymied those efforts.

By wrapping the issue within the auspices of pedestrian safety, city officials may have found a way forward. Such cleverness, however, does not preclude accountability or transparency.

This isn’t some narrowly crafted ordinance addressing a major public safety issue. It’s a de facto ban on roadside panhandling.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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