Midtown Raleigh News

Emails: Legal advice sought to ‘clean up’ Moore Square

Homeless man Timothy Gaskins, left, spends time with friends in Moore Square in 2012. Newly released emails show parks and police officials have been working on efforts to push charity food hand-outs and criminal suspects out of the park.
Homeless man Timothy Gaskins, left, spends time with friends in Moore Square in 2012. Newly released emails show parks and police officials have been working on efforts to push charity food hand-outs and criminal suspects out of the park. 2012 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

City officials sought legal advice on how to push out charities and suspected criminals to “clean up” Moore Square, according to email records released last week.

The emails were sent by parks department leaders and high-ranking police officers in the weeks leading up to a crackdown where nonprofits said they were threatened with arrest for feeding the homeless and indigent in the city park. The News & Observer requested emails from July through late August relating to the topic, though the records released last week only run through Aug. 11, two weeks before the issue made news. Public affairs officials say they’re seeking missing emails from later dates.

The Raleigh City Council has ordered police to temporarily stop enforcing rules prohibited food distributions, and leaders are working with nonprofits to establish other locations for the handouts.

The efforts to clean up Moore Square, according to community-oriented government coordinator Dana Youst, got underway in February with an initiative to ban criminal suspects from Moore Square and the adjacent bus station.

“RPD is seeing offenders continue to be charged with drug deals, sexual exposure, and violent fights in the park and then seeing the same patrons return,” Youst wrote to parks department leaders on Feb. 28. She said police want parks staff to help them ban offenders from the property and charge them with trespassing if they return.

Later that day, parks director Diane Sauer approved the bans for anyone charged with a felony or “serious misdemeanors,” including assaults, drug violations and public urination.

“RPD has my authorization to trespass an offender(s) of the crimes listed below that has occurred on city park property from all city park property,” Sauer wrote in an email.

The policy change was never presented to the City Council.

Talks about charity food distributions in Moore Square heated up in July, emails show. City employees began collecting photos of trash in the park that they attributed to the food handouts; those photos were shown to the City Council in August as it investigated the police crackdown.

“Discussion has begun internally regarding the issues in Moore Square among people who are in a position to make things happen,” community development planner George Adler wrote to co-workers on July 24 – one month before the crackdown made headlines. He recounted an update given to Richard Fitzgerald of Wake Area Missions Ministries.

“I said that the photos of the trash produced a negative reaction among those involved in the discussion ... the city is at the very beginning of working on a public information campaign and that the issues related to Moore Square would be one component.”

Also in July, police leaders reached out to city attorneys and zoning officials to find out whether city ordinances would ban food distributions on public sidewalks.

Zoning administrator Robert Pearce “has the opinion that we could use the below to stop groups from feeding (distributing food) on the sidewalk even if they have no table because they are using the sidewalk for a private purpose,” the downtown district police commander Capt. Rob Council wrote in a July 25 email. “We are not looking to charge at this point, just to educate and make sure our officers are informed.”

On Aug. 11, Police Sgt. Andrew Pugh emailed fellow police supervisors explaining his encounter with the group Human Beans Together – one of the first incidents where a food handout was stopped.

“I spoke with Todd Pratt of the group ‘Human Beans’ who was not aware of the city code 9-2022b,” Pugh wrote. “I quickly made him aware and provided a copy in writing. The group, though disappointed, decided to dismantle their feeding station and move on and seek counsel from their ‘pro-bono’ lawyers.”

Raleigh leaders now regret tasking police officers with the “public information campaign” that resulted in national headlines and outcry over Raleigh’s treatment of the homeless. Interim City Manager Perry James reflected on the incident in a memo Monday to the City Council.

“It’s apparent that an earlier dialogue led by our city staff would have been more appropriate than relying only on our professional law enforcement personnel,” James wrote. “We understand that their close presence and interaction was perceived by groups as a threat to arrest. We have learned from those experiences.”