Faced with growing complaints about panhandlers in street medians, the Omaha City Council is deliberating how to tamp down the practice without trampling on civil rights.

The council began a debate Tuesday on an ordinance that would ban "aggressive panhandling" in the city, while still allowing people to beg for money.

The debate that started at Tuesday's public hearing will continue. The council voted to slow down its consideration of the matter by reconvening the public hearing in seven weeks.

The ordinance was produced after discussions between city attorneys, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and Councilwoman Aimee Melton.

The initiative apparently began in the City Prosecutor's Office amid concerns about people panhandling downtown, Councilman Chris Jerram said after fellow Councilman Pete Festersen asked where the proposal was coming from.

Jerram, who was highly skeptical of the proposed ordinance's potential effectiveness, said there have been concerns about panhandlers seeking money, then using the money to buy high-strength liquor, then urinating, defecating, vomiting and passing out in public.

But the council discussion centered much more on panhandlers who stand in medians, often with cardboard signs, and seek donations from passing drivers.

Melton and Councilman Franklin Thompson said they are receiving an increasing number of complaints about such activity.

"There's a need and a problem," Melton said.

She said she wasn't seeking to send homeless people to jail. She said she's concerned about their safety as much as anything.

The ordinance would define aggressive panhandling and prohibit it.

The definition includes asking for money from a person at an ATM if the panhandler is within 15 feet of the person, making repeated requests after a person refused one, making repeated requests to a person stopped in a line or in traffic, obstructing streets or other public rights of way, touching the solicited person, or blocking the person's path or the entrance to a vehicle or building.

It was unclear Tuesday if the ordinance would — or even could — ban the practice of standing in medians with signs and panhandling.

Amy Miller, an ACLU attorney who testified generally in favor of the proposed ordinance, said it wouldn't be unconstitutional, under current federal court rulings, to prohibit that practice. But she said case law is evolving on the issue.

The ordinance would replace a current city provision that says that anyone who wants to solicit money — other than a religious organization or a charity — must obtain written permission from the police chief.

Omaha police support the proposed ordinance.

It's more than a "feel-good" measure, Deputy Police Chief Dave Baker told the council. But it also would not solve the problem.

"Maybe it'll address 25 percent," Baker said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com twitter.com/chrisburbach

"There's a need and a problem."

Aimee Melton, Omaha City Council member

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