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Hagerstown residents express concern about panhandling

Police say aggressive panhandling is against the law

July 09, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN — Panhandling is something that just about every city police department across the nation deals with on a regular basis, Hagerstown Police Lt. Paul Kifer said.

“It’s everywhere,” Kifer said Monday. “No matter where you go, especially in a city environment.”

And the Hub City is not immune.

Simply asking for money or cigarettes from people walking the streets is not illegal, according to Kifer. However, “aggressive panhandling” — in which people continue begging after they have been told to stop — is a reportable and enforceable offense, he said.

“It’s not against the law to walk up and ask for something,” Kifer said. “But once you’re told ‘no,’” panhandlers have to stop, or they’re breaking the law.

People turn to panhandling for a variety of reasons, most often to feed drug and alcohol addictions, or because they’re jobless, homeless or facing severe financial hardship, Kifer said.

Some city residents say the activity is a concern.

“This is why a lot of people are moving out of here, and stores are closing,” said 62-year-old David Knowlen, who lives on East Antietam Street near the reconstructed Washington County Free Library in downtown Hagerstown. “... It’s getting to be too much for me.”

Knowlen said in a telephone interview that he’s been solicited for money in areas on Antietam, Baltimore and Franklin streets in the city, as well as in the shopping center at the corner of Dual Highway and South Cleveland Avenue.

“They say, ‘You got a dollar or 75 cents?’” he said. “That’s why I don’t carry money on me. Police need to start investigating these people.”

Teresa Layman said that at times she’s been asked for money or cigarettes almost daily by panhandlers when she leaves her apartment near the corner of North Potomac and West Bethel streets.

The Church Street parking lot often is a hotbed for panhandling activity, said Layman, who called it “frustrating” to have it happening so close to her home.

But Layman said it does not make her nervous anymore, noting that she tries her best to simply ignore the unsolicited requests.

“I don’t walk down the street in fear,” she said. “People look for that.”

Noting that panhandling has its “ebbs and flows” in Hagerstown, Kifer said he hasn’t seen a noticeable increase in complaints as a whole, pointing to the problem as one more of perception than substance.

“It comes and goes in terms of locations. We’ve had problems down at the Market House, where we’ve put some more patrols to try to curb the activity,” Kifer said. “We’ve seen increases from time to time” in high-volume, high-traffic areas.

In addition to aggressive panhandling, Kifer said it also is illegal for people to approach motorists who are sitting in their cars. He said people should call police anytime they feel threatened or uncomfortable around panhandlers in the city.

“Most times, if we just show up ... people who are panhandling will leave. They will find somewhere else to go,” he said. “That’s our typical reaction to the complaints. ... Sometimes we will find people that are wanted. We will approach them and try to find out why they are panhandling.”

If you’re approached by a panhandler, Kifer said for safety reasons to avoid taking out your wallet if you choose to oblige their requests.

“If you start fumbling through your wallet or purse, you’re making yourself an easier target by doing that,” he said. “My suggestion to anyone is that if you don’t want to provide anything for these people ... then just say, ‘No thank you,’ or ‘I don’t have any cash on me right now,’ and just keep walking.”

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