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East side residents want extension of “no sit/no lie” law

Tuesday, July 3, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Some residents of central east Austin, frustrated with what they describe as an “open-air drug market” at the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, are asking City Council to expand the boundaries of the city ordinance that prohibits people from sitting or lying in pedestrian rights-of-way in the downtown area.

They believe expanding the so-called “Sit/Lie Ordinance” will cut down on criminal activity in the area, but members of the Public Safety Commission expressed skepticism at their meeting on Monday.

The ordinance, which was enacted in 2005, applies to the entire jurisdiction of the Downtown Community Court, which extends to Lamar Boulevard to the west and Chicon Street to the east, and from Lady Bird Lake to the south and 29th Street west of I-35 to the north and 7th Street east of the highway. The proposed expansion, first presented to Council by the Kealing Neighborhood Association in June, would push the northern boundary east of I-35 to (“at minimum”) MLK and the western boundary to Chestnut Street.

Lee Sherman, the president of the Kealing Neighborhood Association, which encompasses 12th and Chicon, said he and his group are “baffled as to how we were left out” of the Sit/Lie Ordinance to begin with.

“Why is such a terrible thing for our area and not for these others?” Sherman asked the commission. Several commissioners wanted to know if Sherman believes enforcement of Sit/Lie regulations would have any effect on drug sales or prostitution. The ordinance was originally drawn up to combat vagrancy and panhandling, among other minor nuisances.

“That’s a good question,” Sherman said. “Police officers have told me directly that they would like to have this tool, and it’s a way that we could help them obtain it. … There are people sitting and lying on the sidewalks around the open-air drug market at 12th and Chicon and 13th and Chicon. I myself have walked around that area and you get harassed, you get propositioned, you get yelled at.” 

But Austin Police Department officials seemed unconvinced that expanding the Sit/Lie Ordinance from downtown (where panhandling and vagrancy around businesses are the primary concern) to the area around 12th and Chicon would help reduce crime.

“This type of ordinance doesn’t really apply to the type of activity that we’ve seen in that area,” said APD Assistant Chief Patrick Ockletree. “Looking at more violent crimes, crimes geared toward drug use and the open-air drug market, what we’ve typically seen is the folks that are coming there are coming in and out of that area. … You’re not seeing people sitting around.”

Several commissioners expressed skepticism about the value of expanding the boundaries of the Sit/Lie Ordinance to deter or reduce serious crimes in the Kealing neighborhood,

Commissioner Ramey Ko, who, as a municipal judge, administers tickets for violations of the ordinance, said Sit/Lie may actually do more harm than good, both for the city and for the homeless citizens the Downtown Community Court provides social services for.

“Nothing in my personal experience at the court, and nothing in the experience of those I talk to in the various offices who work with these individuals, have made us feel confident this is anything but a program that ends up being a revolving door that causes primarily homeless folks to end up with a lot more offenses on their criminal record, which then creates even more problems trying to get them hooked up with services or giving them access or eligibility for programs,” Ko said. “In many ways, it further entrenches their homelessness as a result of their criminal records.”

Several of Ko’s colleagues on the commission said enforcing the Sit/Lie Ordinance could simply result in the criminalization of a community, particularly poorer African-American residents who have lived in the area for a long time.

“People living in that area, if they’re sitting on the sidewalk, you tell them ‘leave,’ then they can be ticketed by the police,” said Commission Member Sam Holt. “Next thing you know, they have a criminal history. What you’re asking for, in my opinion, you’re going to affect a specific group of people; basically the African-American population is going to be targeted.”

The Commission will take up the issue of Sit/Lie expansion at their next meeting, in August.

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