Chief Cordeiro: ‘Some Laws We Can Enforce’ Regarding Panhandlers
New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro says his department will soon be cracking down on panhandlers entering into the street and harassing motorists for money, and that his department is also looking into the possibility of asking judges to commit more overdose victims to rehab facilities.
The city has been battling the panhandler issue for years now, and Chief Cordeiro talked about the challenges his department and the city face in an interview with WBSM's Brian Thomas.
"The thing with the panhandlers, many or most--but not all--are using that money to feed a substance abuse or disease, to feed that addiction that they have, whether it's alcohol or drugs," Cordeiro said. "So giving them that money is giving that money to the liquor store, or someone who is peddling drugs."
Cordeiro did note that not all panhandlers are addicts, and said that he understands the right to beg for money has been constitutionally protected.
"We're not trying to stop that right. We're trying to stop the behavior of walking into the street, which is a public safety issue for motorists and for that person, which is why we have sidewalks," he said. "If you're begging on the street, there are some laws that we can enforce, with fines mostly, depending on what level of behavior they're showing on the street."
The chief said the city is putting into place some "environmental designs" that will keep panhandlers from standing in the median, likely alluding to the jersey barriers that have been put in place at certain intersections. He said the idea is to force panhandlers to stand on the sidewalk.
Chief Cordeiro also said there will soon be a crackdown on panhandlers actually going into the street.
"We're doing some strategies that you'll see coming into play in the next couple of weeks to try to curb this behavior even more so, of people that are actually banging on windows, demanding money," he said. "I think that crosses over to disorderly behavior, or disorderly conduct, and we can go after that person doing that."
Of course, the chief says the easiest way to curb panhandling is for motorists to stop giving the beggars money.
"People have to stop giving that money, but we're such a charitable, giving people here (in New Bedford), it's hard to do that," he said. "But if we can break that part of the chain, then we're on the right track."
The chief also spoke about the opioid epidemic and the decision to use Narcan to reverse overdoses. Cordeiro was asked by a caller if the police department has considered utilizing Section 35 for addicts, a Massachusetts General Law that allows a judge to "involuntarily commit someone whose alcohol or drug use puts themselves, or others, at risk." A person who is placed under Section 35 is put into an inpatient substance abuse program for up to 90 days.
"We're actually now starting to consider developing more of a policy where, if we have anyone that overdoses one or two times, we will petition the court under Section 35," Cordeiro said. "The trick is, we need more beds. That's a big state issue. More beds have been put in play by this governor, and I'm grateful to Governor Baker for doing that."
However, even with a lack of beds, Cordeiro thinks utilizing the Section 35 option could help many addicts.
"It's an effective tool that we need to use more effectively than we are," he said. "Studies say it takes seven or eight times of someone going through rehab before they can get clean, so every time we can get them in there, I think it's an opportunity to help them have that revelation or that epiphany to get clean."
Cordeiro also talked about his community policing program, which he said is an attempt to combine old-school policing with the modern demands of the job.
"Fifty years ago, we had all beat officers, and we had a great relationship with the community. He knew everything, or she knew everything that was going on in that neighborhood, and who was doing what," Cordeiro said. "Then we move into cars and radios, technology put us into rapid response mode, and we lost that connection with the community."
The chief said that in the 60s and 70s, as the public had less interaction with police, their trust in the officers began to dwindle. Cordeiro acknowleged that the budget just doesn't allow for him to canvas the city in beat officers like in the old days, but that he has his officers incorporating a 30-minute walk through the community with each shift as demand allows.
"All of our officers get to know everyone in their community, and built that relationship, (despite) with the modern policing demands and financial restraints," he said.