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Police suggest ways to stop panhandling in Olney

by Ethan Therrien

Contributing Writer

Olney businesspeople are concerned by what they say is an increase in panhandling.

The Montgomery County Police Department gave suggestions on how to stop panhandling to a group of Olney business owners during a discussion of safety and crime issues on Sept. 18.

Sponsored by the Olney Chamber of Commerce, the meeting was the result of several chamber-member businesses expressing concern over what they say is increasing panhandling, loitering, shoplifting and other safety issues, said Terri Hogan, executive director of the chamber.

The chamber contacted 4th District Commander Capt. David Smith, who offered to bring a team of officers to Olney to meet with local businesses. All Olney-area businesses, not just chamber members, were invited to attend, Hogan saidl.

Businesspeople who attended the meeting said panhandling has a negative effect on sales and customer satisfaction. They also said that panhandlers frequently exhibit aggressive behavior, such as verbal harassment, demanding money and chasing away customers.

While the act of panhandling is protected under the law, aggressive panhandling does not receive the same legal protection, according to Smith.

“Panhandling in and of itself is a legal activity; aggressive panhandling is prohibited by county code,” he said. “Call for every instance. Give as many descriptions as you can. If you happen to have a picture, you can share one from your video surveillance.”

Smith suggested ways that business owners can prevent and put a stop to non-aggressive panhandling, including the postage of clear and prominent anti-trespassing signs. While a few businesspeople said that panhandlers often ignore such warnings, simply posting them could be a valuable tool for police officers in stopping the behavior.

“What I would encourage is to post signage against trespassing, because that is the notification there,” said Smith. “When we have people that are hanging out around your business, or perhaps are clearly engaging in non-business-related conduct, that is a tool that the officers could potentially use.”

Spreading awareness of the issue is also key. Educating the community about panhandling could be an important step in lowering its occurrence, according to Montgomery County Police Sgt. Ifeoma Enendu.

“A couple of years ago, the county actually did have a campaign where they were educating members of the community about panhandlers,” said Enendu. “Maybe this is something that we can put back on their radar, so they can continue with it, because there was quite a spike then.”

At the Sept. 12 meeting of the Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA), the organization’s officers discussed the panhandlers who stand in the medium strip of intersections, including the intersection of Georgia Avenue (Route 97) and Olney-Sandy Spring/Olney-Laytonsville (Route 108) Road, asking for money.

In addition to the potential annoyance to drivers, the men and women could cause other dangers, they said.

They agree: “It’s just an accident waiting to happen.”

Hogan said the overall message of the event is that “Olney is still considered to be a very safe community.”

“The recent incidents we have seen are not unique; they are happening everywhere,” she said. “We need to foster collaboration, trust and involvement among police, businesses and residents, and work together to enhance safety and create a secure and thriving community.”

Hogan said the Olney Chamber of Commerce was “pleased with the turnout, especially since it was in the middle of the workday. The officers were interested in hearing from the businesses and the businesses welcomed the opportunity to express their concerns and ask questions.”

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