Discussion of the role of the Downtown Development Authority morphed into venting about panhandlers at Thursday morning’s meeting of the Main Street Area Association. Saying that customers are complaining, several merchants are concerned about panhandlers becoming more aggressive since the city pulled its beat cops from the street earlier this week.
The topic came up after a presentation by DDA executive director Susan Pollay, who was filling in for Rene Greff, a DDA board member and co-owner of Arbor Brewing Company and Corner Brewery. Greff had been scheduled to give the same talk she gave at a DDA retreat in May, outlining the organization’s history, how it works and what it has accomplished.
So how did panhandling usurp parking as the most-discussed topic related to the DDA? Why aren’t beat cops patrolling downtown? What do merchants think about “Arthur,” one of the regulars who asks passers-by for change along Main Street? It all comes down to money.
The DDA and Beat Cops
We won’t attempt to detail Pollay’s presentation, except to note the part relevant to the issue of beat cops. In 2005 the DDA and the city reached a parking system administration agreement under which the city could ask the DDA for up to $2 million each year not to exceed $10 million over 10 years. Pollay said that as part of that agreement, it was the DDA’s expectation that the city would fund beat cops to the downtown. However, this was not part of the contractual arrangement, she said – the city can use the $2 million for any purpose. So the DDA had no recourse when the city decided to restructure the way it handles patrols.
Until this week, six officers were assigned to walk or bicycle the downtown area, working in pairs at any given time. As part of a restructuring of the Ann Arbor Police Department, those patrols have been eliminated. The Chronicle’s coverage of the May 18 city council meeting reported the explanation that police chief Barnett Jones gave to council:
… Jones explained that the total number of uniforms downtown would actually increase. Officers are required to spend one hour every day outside of their cars – partly to conserve fuel, Jones said. And during these out-of-car breaks, they’d be walking around downtown. Sandi Smith (Ward 1) clarified that by “break” Jones didn’t mean sitting in a cafe eating lunch. Jones also clarified for Smith that the new way of organizing the policing of downtown was not a break from the notion of “community policing.”
One visible sign of this change at Thursday morning’s meeting was the uniform of Doug Martelle, who was formerly on bike patrol in the downtown area. At previous meetings of the Main Street Area Association, Martelle and his partner wore cycling shorts. On Thursday, Martelle was alone, and in a regular uniform.
During the Q&A following Pollay’s talk, Roger Pothus described an incident this week near Renaissance, his clothing store on South Division. There was a break-in at a home during the middle of the afternoon – Pothus said that people who witnessed the incident and called in to report it were “lectured” that there were fewer police officers on the force and that no one could come out to the scene. They were told that if they wanted to report the crime, they needed to come to the downtown police station, Pothus said.
The topic of security shifted to panhandling, as someone suggested that the city’s mayor, John Hieftje, be asked to walk the downtown area in the late afternoon, particularly when panhandlers gather around Starbucks at the corner of Main and Liberty.
Several people identified “Arthur” as one of the more aggressive panhandlers, known for walking with a single crutch. Rebecca Konieczny, owner of the Busy Hands yarn and gift store, said she’d gotten so mad that she followed him up and down Main Street, calling the police from her cell phone. Someone else suggested that perhaps merchants start carrying mace and pepper spray, to which Martelle responded: “I can’t condone the use of mace on the homeless population.”
Pollay said the best way to get increased levels of service is to call the city each time there’s a problem. Newcombe Clark, president of the Main Street Area Association board, said the association could make the non-emergency police phone number more widely available to downtown merchants. [The non-emergency number is (734) 794-6911]
“We urge you to call,” Martelle said. Even if the panhandler is gone by the time police arrive and they can’t write up the incident, the call will be logged, he said. The time of the call is recorded, as is the time that an officer is dispatched and the times they arrive and leaves.
Carl Ent, a former Ann Arbor police chief who is now a vice president at the Bank of Ann Arbor, told the group that even if it takes an officer 25 minutes to respond in one instance, the next time he might be right around the corner when the call comes in, and can respond more quickly.
Martelle said Arthur was one of their “no tolerance guys” – if he was violating the law, they’d write a ticket. For panhandlers they hadn’t seen on the street before, police first give them a warning and explain what was permitted and what was not. When Martelle told the group that Arthur had been successful in getting some of his tickets waived, several merchants responded with groans of exasperation.
Later in the meeting, Pollay announced that the DDA was giving $16,000 to the four downtown merchant associations – $4,000 each – to use for window display contests, with the goal of making downtown more walkable.
Clark had this suggestion: “Put beat cops in all the windows.”