Taking control of an aggressive panhandler

How to defend yourself against aggressive panhandlers
Published: Jul. 27, 2015 at 7:33 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 28, 2015 at 11:54 AM CDT
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When walking or at a bus stop, keep 911 dialed on your phone. (Source: WMC Action News 5)
When walking or at a bus stop, keep 911 dialed on your phone. (Source: WMC Action News 5)
At an ATM, turn your back to protect your belongings, but be able to see the potential threat....
At an ATM, turn your back to protect your belongings, but be able to see the potential threat. (Source: WMC Action News 5)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Despite increased police details and tougher state penalties, aggressive panhandlers continue to harass locals and tourists at a frustrating pace, according to Col. Gloria Bullock, commander of the Memphis Police Department's South Main Station.

Arrest records revealed Memphis police officers have taken nine people into custody for aggressive panhandling -- yelling, browbeating, blocking someone's path -- since July 18. All but one are regulars on the panhandling docket.

They are arrested so often, they've earned a nickname. "We call them 'gold card members,'" Bullock said. "They're just well-known. They're just continually going through the system."

The City of Memphis passed an ordinance in 2010, outlawing all panhandling in specific areas (ATMs, financial institutions, self-serve car washes, sidewalks, bus stops, gas stations, etc.) and establishing a '"Downtown Panhandling Prohibited Zone." The zone covers the entire Downtown entertainment complex from the South Main Historic District to Beale Street to the Main Street Mall to Bass Pro and the Pinch District.

Police records suggest it's not working.

All nine incidents since July 18 happened within the prohibited zone. Since 2012, MPD arrested 508 people for aggressive panhandling. Bullock said more than half of them are repeat offenders.

"It's just a revolving door," she said. "People are going in, they're coming out, they're going in...they pass us on the way out."

This year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law that bumped aggressive panhandling up from a simple city ordinance violation to a state court misdemeanor. The law enhances the penalties, particularly on repeat offenders (max. $500 fine, up to 90 days in jail).

"Maybe they can stay in the system a little longer, and it won't be such a revolving door and people won't be bothered as much," Bullock said in support of the law.

But she admitted that since the law took effect July 1, MPD has arrested 45 aggressive panhandlers. 26 are repeat offenders.

"So you're increasing penalties on people who can't pay them anyway. That's why they're panhandling in the first place," argued Allison Gibbs, program manager for Just City Memphis. Just City Memphis is a non-profit that helps people who have been through the criminal justice system integrate back into society.

"What (the new law) does is it further criminalizes something that's already criminalized," Gibbs said.

She suggested Tennessee should spend money lifting panhandlers up instead of locking them up. "Spending money that we would be spending to criminalize behavior and putting it into programs to provide jobs, that would provide training, that would provide housing," she said.

Until that happens -- or until the new law proves it can curb aggressive panhandling -- if a panhandler pushes things a little too far, Bullock recommended going into the closest business and dialing your local police's non-emergency number. "Ask for the police to meet you. We'll be glad to meet you anywhere," Bullock said.

Jay Carrick, martial artist and security expert affiliated with USA Karate, demonstrated techniques to safely defuse a panhandler who is taking begging too far. She shared practical advice for nearly every scenario in which panhandling is prohibited in the Memphis metro:

* SIDEWALK. If you must walk alone on a city sidewalk or park sidewalk where panhandlers may hang out, Carrick said you should have your phone cued up to dial 911 just in case and keep it right on your ear. "Just hold up the phone to your ear," she said. "That way, when you're walking, they can see that you are busy on the phone."

If the panhandler continues to harass you, keep moving with the phone to your ear. "Don't be rude, but when you walk past them, acknowledge them so they know you know they're there," Carrick added.

Remember, you have 911 cued up. You shouldn't call unless the panhandler either makes physical contact with you or blocks your path, but all it takes is one button.

* GAS PUMP. Park your vehicle next to the pump so that the doors on the side where you fill up can be used as barriers between you and a panhandler. Lock the doors on the vehicle's opposite side. If you have a 4-door vehicle, you've essentially sealed yourself between your car and the pump. If you have a 2-door, and someone tries to get to you from the open side, use the pump nozzle as a defensive weapon if necessary.

* ATM. Common sense will tell you to avoid going to an ATM walk-up or drive-thru at night by yourself. If you must go at night in your vehicle, lock the doors on the opposite side of the vehicle while you conduct your transaction.

If you must use a walk-up, Carrick demonstrated a technique called blading. Think of a baseball pitcher in the stretch, keeping an eye on the runner on first. "Basically, just turning your back towards them and protecting your items," Carrick said, but in a way that allows you a clear line-of-sight to the potential threat.

If the panhandler gets more aggressive, break the blade and start backing away, sternly and firmly saying 'No.'

"But when you do say 'No,' be polite and assertive," Carrick said. "That way, they can understand that you're not going to give them any money."

* BUS STOP. Carrick suggested using your cell phone again as a deterrent, cued up to 911. When a panhandler approaches, stand up if you're sitting at the stop's bench. "It's easier for someone to overpower you when you're sitting," she said. "Pop straight up, politely saying 'No.' If they keep coming, keep the phone to your ear, move toward an adjoining business or more public area and make a scene, shouting '911! 911!' to discourage the panhandler."

* SELF-SERVE CAR WASH. Don't use the change machine at the car wash. Carrick said that's where a panhandler will corner you. "Collect your change at home or at your bank before you come to the car wash. That'll eliminate the change machine as a risk," she said.

She said lock your car's doors when you pull into the wash bay, so no one can get into it while you're washing. The spray wand can double as a defensive weapon. If approached, be polite but stern, keeping the wand between you and the panhandler. If the panhandler is persistent, Carrick said try to make your way back to the driver's side door. If that's not possible, drop the wand on the ground between the panhandler and you, then head for the street or an adjoining business to attract attention.

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