Broken Arrow refining approach to panhandling issues


By John Dobberstein, Editor

Like in many larger U.S. cities, panhandlers have been a frequent sight in Tulsa traversing 71st Street, downtown or other areas asking for help, sometimes with children or dogs in tow.

But many Broken Arrow residents were unnerved last fall when several families were perched at major intersections engaged in panhandling. City staff and city councilors fielded numerous calls about perceived aggressive panhandling and people fearing for their personal safety.

The Broken Arrow City Council asked the city attorney’s office to look into legal options, which resulted in a revised ordinance approved this year that provides more specific enforcement power for Broken Arrow police when addressing panhandling complaints.

And a new program launched Monday gives residents concerned about panhandlers a way to donate remotely to a non-profit organization that cares for persons in need instead of handing out money and potentially encouraging unsafe situations.


“We've heard from citizens who have expressed concern about the growing number of individuals seen standing along our city streets asking for money,” Mayor Debra Wimpee said. “With this partnership, our goal is to balance citizens' concerns for public safety and wanting a solution that offers compassionate assistance to help our neighbors who are truly in need.”

Legal battle in OKC

Earlier this year, City Manager Michael Spurgeon said panhandling complaints were coming in almost weekly and residents were voicing safety concerns.

“I truly want to believe they need help, so as a city if we can get them to the area or agencies that can help them that would be my number one goal,” Spurgeon said in January.

The city’s previous ordinance said people couldn’t repeatedly beg in a manner that “hinders or obstructs free passage of a person in public space.” But some didn’t feel the ordinance was specific enough about the behaviors generating concern.

The city’s updated ordinance now makes it unlawful for any person to aggressively beg, panhandle or solicit any other person and is punishable as a Class A offense.

The city took action after watching legal drama unfold with Oklahoma City’s legislation, passed in 2015, which prohibited anyone from sitting, standing or remaining in any public roads or medians.

The measure was challenged in local courts by the ACLU, newspaper groups, the Oklahoma Libertarian party, city residents and a variety of other groups who claimed the law would harm free speech.

Broken Arrow City Attorney Travor Dennis said a judge ruled the ordinance wasn’t tailored to any specific harms connected to panhandling, such as increased accidents, traffic backups or crime.

The decision was appealed to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision that banning all begging in city rights-of-way was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Oklahoma City’s final appeal.

Oklahoma City still believed continued begging or soliciting after no response is given from a person could make the person feel vulnerable or threatened.

Its revised ordinance fines 15 specific behaviors, including touching; blocking or interfering with safe passage; using violent threatening gestures; following behind someone; using profane language, and begging in front of captive locations like public building entrances.

Scope of the problem

Broken Arrow Police Chief Brandon Berryhill in January said an analysis of the city’s dispatch data for 2022 identified 71 calls for panhandling or begging, 66 of which were probably not in violation of the city’s old or new ordinance.

For the 5 remaining cases where the caller said the panhandler was aggressive, 3 of the subjects left before police arrived and 2 were asked to leave as trespassers. Four of the 5 incidents occurred at businesses, and 35 of the 71 calls last year were at an intersection and the rest at businesses.

There were 53 panhandling complaints in 2021 and 28 in 2020, he said.

Berryhill said there are typically three types of panhandlers the BAPD sees: those panhandling on small scale, those who officers know that are not homeless and begging to sustain themselves, and those who are truly homeless or destitute. Mental illness can be an issue for some of them, especially those who are homeless.
There has also been concern over what appears to be organizational coordination among groups of people going from town-to-town begging, and it’s not clear where the money collected goes.

One family in particular last fall appeared frequently at various intersections in Broken Arrow, generating numerous calls to dispatchers. Berryhill said the family, which has since left, was not homeless and had a hotel room. They were issued a citation for hindering traffic and are no longer here.

During one call, Berryhill said, the BAPD watch commander on shift went to check on the family’s children to ensure they had food and water.

Broken Arrow police will check the well-being of a person who has been reported as being homeless or panhandling and explain services that are available to those in need and offer transportation to local shelters. Sometimes the individuals will decline assistance.

Once police have checked on an individual and determined their safety is not in immediate jeopardy and no violations of the law are occurring, officers will not be reassigned to check on the individual again in the same 10-hour shift, provided circumstances have not changed.

“We’re not going to harass them,” Berryhill said. “We’ve been out there and checked on them, but we can’t send officers out there 10 times a day. If businesses don’t want them on their property or they’re doing something that is hindering business, they can have them removed due to trespassing.”

He added: “As we become a larger and larger city those numbers are probably going to continue to rise.”

The fine details

The City Council’s updates to its ordinance on aggressive begging notes that while first-amendment rights are supported, the city’s provisions limit where and how panhandling can take place.

The measure makes it unlawful for any person to aggressively beg, panhandle, or solicit any other person and is punishable as a Class A offense. At the request of Council members, the updated measure notes that panhandling is not allowed:

- Within 20 feet of any outdoor seating area of any café, restaurant or other business, ATM, public toilet or pay telephone;

- Within 50 feet of mass transportation stops, including school bus stops, or any land owned by a public or private school;

- After dark in public places;

- Towards people younger than 18 years old.

Finding another way

The city of Broken Arrow also explored alternative ways for residents to support those in need without handing out money.

The city of Tulsa and the nonprofit A Way Home for Tulsa started a campaign, “Change How You Give,” earlier this year that allows people to text “Tulsa” to 44-321 to donate and help the homeless.

"Tulsans want to help other Tulsans. But many of us are unsure of the best way to provide help and support,” District 8 Tulsa City Councilor Phil Lakin said when the program was announced. “These signs direct us to change how we give, by giving to a nonprofit that works to house and care for the homeless. Now, when we see a need, we have a proven way to act, and to share what we have with others."

BAPD and Mayor Debra Wimpee met with staff at the John 3:16 Mission in Tulsa to discuss the potential for a similar program, and one was created for Broken Arrow.

Broken Arrow’s “Giving That Makes Cents” program will allow people to text “BA” to 50155 to donate money to John 3:16, which will provide a hot meal to those who need assistance.

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