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Nine arrested on panhandling charges as St. Petersburg police focus on downtown

ST. PETERSBURG — Friday night was a bad time to be homeless in downtown.

St. Petersburg police added extra people downtown on an enforcement detail, police say, focusing on commonly violated city ordinances in the area. That included indecent exposure, disorderly intoxication, liquor law violations and the 2-month-old panhandling ordinance.

They arrested 36 people from about 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Many of those arrested were transients, and at least nine were charged with crimes related to panhandling.

It's the latest rash of arrests in what appears to be a crackdown on the city's homeless, prompted by a new mayor with a tough stance on the issue. Business owners and others have complained that intoxicated or panhandling homeless people are a nuisance to a thriving downtown.

But police officials say they weren't targeting the homeless. Friday's a busy night downtown, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz. Officers have done similar enforcement details in the past.

"We're not just picking on the homeless down there," he said, noting that plainclothes officers also were making sure bars closed on time. "But if we do have transients panhandling, that's going to be part of the issue."

In mid June, the St. Petersburg City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that prohibits transaction between pedestrians and motorists on the city's busiest streets.

It effectively cleared the city of street begging, which was part of the homeless problem that Mayor Bill Foster has been fighting since taking office. Many left for Tampa and Hillsborough County, where shelters have seen a surge in served meals. Foster couldn't be reached for comment about Friday's increased patrols.

But some panhandlers still persist, as Friday night's arrests show.

Ten officers worked on the detail — four in plainclothes, four in uniform and two on mounted patrol. The officers focused on the 100 to 300 blocks of First Avenue N and Central Avenue, Williams Park and the BayWalk complex.

The plainclothes officers acted as spotters, Puetz said, looking for problems. Then other officers would make arrests.

Eight of the men arrested on panhandling charges were released from Pinellas County Jail by Sunday. Information wasn't readily available on those arrested on other offenses.

Most of the men walked up to undercover officers and asked for loose change, according to arrest reports. One man asked for a dime. One for spare quarters.

Another was specific: 45 cents.

One man, Henry Lee Reed, also known as "Wicked," was charged with disorderly intoxication. Police reports say he was "panhandling a cigarette from a woman on Central Ave." An officer walked up to him to explain the panhandling law.

Reed cursed out the officer and threatened to have his job, records show.

Another man, Larry Darnell Brown, 46, was released from jail Friday night, five hours before he was arrested and accused of aggressive panhandling by coercion.

Andy Boyle can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or aboyle@sptimes.com.

Nine arrested on panhandling charges as St. Petersburg police focus on downtown 08/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 11:39pm]
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