Derry and Londonderry police are responding to an influx of panhandlers in the area, within the limits of what the law allows them to do.
An increasing number of people asking for money, many with cardboard signs, has been observed in the Hood Commons area of Derry. Derry Police Capt. Vern Thomas said this demographic has increased over the past three years. But until someone complains, there is little the force can do about it.
Thomas explained that as long as the panhandlers just hold their signs, they are not breaking any laws until the owner of the property complains. “If someone wants them off their private property, then we can move on it,” he said. “For example, if the owner of the mall called us and said they wanted them gone.”
If they’re just standing there holding the sign, “if they’re low-key,” they are not breaking the law, Thomas said. But if they become aggressive and start approaching drivers at red lights or stop signs, it’s a different matter, according to Thomas.
“Then it’s disorderly conduct,” he said, “and we can arrest them.”
They can’t make a policy against people holding signs, Thomas said, noting, “It is what it is.”
The Derry officers will respond to any complaint, Thomas said, “but, absent any violation of the law, there’s nothing for us to track.” And they are proactive, he said, adding, “If we sense a problem, we talk to them right away.”
Det. Chris Olson of the Londonderry Police Department said, “We do have a problem, and we don’t have an ordinance.”
The biggest offenses come from the Market Basket area, including the stop signs and stoplights near Citizens Bank. “They are very aggressive here,” he said. There is also a problem at Burger King and on Route 93 Exit 4 going north. Most recently, the people claiming to be homeless have hauled their cardboard signs to Route 102 by the Crossroads Mall, he said.
Olson said, “There is nothing we can do until they enter the roadway.”
The Londonderry department has officers patrolling these areas on a regular basis, looking for offenders, Olson said. “But until they do something, we can’t arrest them,” he explained.
Olson said the department will soon be issuing a statement on the issue.
Rochester had had an ordinance that prohibited even “peaceful” panhandling in the city. In December 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union objected, citing a prohibition on free speech, and the city repealed its ordinance in February.
Concord has had a prohibition in Section 68 of the city ordinance since spring 2013. While it can’t keep people from holding signs, the ordinance makes it a violation for anyone to receive donations from a person in a car. The fine is a maximum of $500.