In the wake of a worrying series of crime alerts the past few months, students returned to campus this fall with a different mindset than in years past. The comfortable atmosphere in Ann Arbor has been compromised as a result of an increase in reported sexual assaults — one occurring in the Liberty Street parking structure near many downtown businesses — and noticeably aggressive panhandling. These changes to the character of downtown Ann Arbor have many local business owners concerned, and they fear that safety concerns throughout the Ann Arbor area are driving away business. The city needs to allocate funds to address the problem of Ann Arbor safety concerns, and support local businesses and residents.
According to a Daily article article from July 31, amendments dealing with panhandling in Ann Arbor have been ineffective. A Sept. 25 AnnArbor.com article details how this problem has only gotten worse in the eyes of those who frequent the downtown area. Business owners say aggressive panhandling is driving costumers away from their stores. Some shoppers and employees don’t feel safe, especially at night. Housing in the Liberty Street area is some of the most expensive in downtown, and business owners say the concentration of panhandlers on the street, along with other crime-related factors, is hurting their businesses — potentially leading some of them to close their doors.
Last year, a city task force attempted to address this issue. Panhandling became prohibited in more areas, including public buses, areas near parking garages and within 12 feet of Nichols Arcade. The task force called for stricter enforcement by police. Unfortunately, with the police force already spread thin as a result of budget cuts, removing panhandlers from prohibited areas isn’t a top priority for law enforcement in the city.
Instead, the Ann Arbor Police Department recently decided to crack down on motorists who fail to stop for pedestrians by fining them up to $100 for an offense. While this is important for the safety of campus pedestrians, it shouldn’t be the department’s sole priority. Police should be patrolling downtown Ann Arbor and enforcing panhandling policies in order to protect businesses and encourage commerce. It’s contradictory that resources are allocated to revenue-earning endeavors when there is a clear need for on-the-ground police presence throughout the city.
However, city officials should work with social service institutions to ensure enforcement isn’t simply a war on people facing dire poverty. The Ann Arbor City Council should focus on social services to fight homelessness and help get people off the street. The task force was originally intended to be an outreach program, and it shouldn’t focus solely on enforcement. Resources should be in place to help, rather than punish, homeless people.
In addition to the necessary increased police activity, individuals need to educate themselves on how to stay safe. Students and consumers should travel in groups, especially at night. Businesses should also continue to report incidents so that the city takes this matter seriously.
We must not be naïve in thinking Ann Arbor is recession-proof and idyllic. Residents should encourage city officials to curb actions it has already deemed illegal to keep the city thriving.