State Street businesses concerned about safety after aggressive panhandling leads to assaults

State Street business owners have voiced growing concerns over crime and violence that happen at the top of State Street.

Russell St. John, an assistant manager at Ian’s Pizza, said he calls the police at least once a week to help solve issues.

“It is a little frustrating to have to play that role and you feel like a bad person when you tell someone, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.'”

St. John said panhandling has become aggressive lately.

“A lot of people asking to bum cigarettes, people asking for a dollar or two. A lot of times we end up with people inside the store which is where we start to take issue with it,” he said.

St. John acknowledged that a couple of employees have been assaulted as a result of the aggressive panhandling and that it has become more difficult to retain employees.

“It makes people kind of uncomfortable, so we’ve had a bit of turnover from it,” he said.

Mike Verveer is the alder for this area of Madison. Verveer said he has received steady complaints about the issues in that area, and although he and the city are concerned, there’s not much they can do because panhandling is protected free speech.

“It’s something I’m very frustrated we can’t do more about because of case law and the fact that our panhandling ordinances are on very dubious ground constitutionally,” Verveer said.

St. John said he does as much policing as he can on his own because of this.

“Unfortunately the police in Madison work on metrics, so when all the businesses go away, people aren’t calling 911 which, then, they don’t have the metrics to report at the end of the year saying, ‘Hey downtown needs to have resources allocated for the 5 to midnight time,'” he said.

Verveer said there is a way for businesses to help themselves in an aggressive panhandling situation going forward.

“Call 911 and report it so that people can be arrested for disorderly conduct because that’s the only law we have on the books to deal with this,” Verveer said.

Until then, it will be up to businesses to follow up with that advice if that line between panhandling and assault is crossed. St. John said his vision for increasing safety is to “just increase patrols. We definitely notice a difference inside of our restaurant when there’s a police presence at the top of State Street.”

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