The Asian couple taking each other's photo outside the Bricktown restaurant clearly were tourists. Armed with a map of the district and some local attraction brochures, they didn't seem to notice the panhandler eyeing them from a few yards away.
But before he could approach them for money, the couple entered the restaurant. The man then walked across the street and tried to make contact with another person walking toward his car.
I saw all of this with my own eyes just two weeks ago. Then, last week, I listened as Capt. Patrick Stewart, commander at the Bricktown Police Substation, informed merchants that officers are looking to crack down on such solicitations — but the task is complicated by a public that doesn't understand what constitutes aggressive — and illegal — panhandling.
What are the rules? City ordinances prohibit panhandlers from continuing to approach, speak or follow a person after the person says "no.” Any intentional physical contact without the other's consent is also considered aggressive and a violation of Oklahoma City ordinances.
Blocking or interfering with safe passage is a no-no. So is yelling or the use of violent or threatening language or gestures. Some places are forbidden zones for panhandling, including ATMs, restaurants, shops and offices, or near ticket lines for theaters or events at the Cox Convention Center or Ford Center.
Even Stewart was surprised to find out from a merchant that all panhandling is illegal from 30 minutes before sunset until 30 minutes after sunrise.
Stewart said downtown residents, workers and visitors should not hesitate calling 911 if they are panhandled under any of the above circumstances. With a written complaint, the panhandler can be fined or arrested.
But some may ask, isn't this a rather heartless response to the plight of the homeless? Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. joined with local shelters a couple years ago to sell vouchers to people wanting to offer help to those truly in need. The organization also assists in development of a one-stop-shop assistance center just west of downtown.