Morgantown searches for a downtown solution

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – From 9 a.m. to noon Morgantown City Council members were briefed by police chief Ed Preston and acting city attorney Matthew Elshiaty.

The special session was called following complaints from businesses and residents using the downtown about open drug use, panhandling, fighting and disorderly conduct. The complaints quickly became calls for help to the police department.

Citizens have called for police to use loitering and nuisance laws to arrest and charge the violators.

Chief Preston explained that enforcing these laws is not just a matter of taking someone to jail for being obnoxious standing or sitting in one place for a long period of time.

“Loitering is actually a protected activity under the First Amendment,” Preston said,”It’s under the freedom of assembly, under the First Amendment, the Constitution provides the freedom religion, press, petition, religion and speech.”

West Virginia Substance abuse law also limits what police can do. Under current law for example, public intoxication is a protected activity when the offender is an alcoholic. West Virginia Code 60-6-9(f) says: “Who is an alcoholic shall be found not guilty by reason of addiction” and will apply to public intoxication, public consumption and illegal possession of alcoholic beverages.

Preston told council members a holding area here would help with alcohol-related problems. He estimated the facility would cost from $150,000 to $180,000 per year to operate but it would save time during the arrest process allowing the officer to return to duty quicker.

Preston says drug cases are handled through medical professionals on-scene or in hospitals.

Panhandlers can’t be arrested unless they are physically aggressive, menacing, intimidating or threatening, all situations that have to analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

In a 2011 survey of 20 individuals “hanging out” in downtown Morgantown 13 of 20 participants reported they were from outside Monongalia County and 85 percent of them received services from one of the organizations. Seven-teen were employable, four received Social Security benefits, five were on disability and one person was on unemployment.

Preston added that he has worked on the issue with different groups of city leaders for the last nine years. He advised council members to identify one or two top priorities to address, then one or two more and so on.

Preston also told business owners to inspect their property and eliminate outdoor receptacles that people use to charge electronic devices, add surveillance cameras and follow through with police when complaints are filed.

Counciler Jenny Selin added that giving money to one of the many faith-based organizations is a better option than giving money to a panhandler. Giving money to panhandlers only encourages others to come to downtown to do the same.

Councilman Ron Dulaney expressed a desire to make a road map that would lead to a solution, while acknowledging there may be several solutions.

“I would frankly like to us put a framework in place for what we want to achieve here in place and organize the activities that we need to achieve that outcome rather than just scheduling meeting without a defined, clear end, Dulaney said,”Where do we want to be and where do we want to go.”

From this meeting, leaders have scheduled another meeting service providers and City manager Paul Brake is producing a work plan that will serve as a guide.