About a month before police cracked down on charity food handouts in Moore Square, the city’s parks director sought legal advice to end the practice she called “out of control,” according to email records released this week.
The emails were sent among city employees – and didn’t include the City Council – in the weeks before charities reported being threatened with arrest for feeding the homeless and indigent. The August crackdown brought national attention to the city, and the council has stopped police action until a long-term solution is reached in November. It’s been unclear how the incident came about, and several charities say they still have unanswered questions about who ordered the police action.
The emails were the second batch from July and August provided to The News & Observer through a public records request. An initial release of email records this month was incomplete and did not include key messages from city officials.
According to the new records, Parks and Recreation Director Diane Sauer sought legal advice about the issue from City Attorney Tom McCormick on July 11.
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“Is there anything we can do from a legal perspective to stop the feeding around Moore Square?” Sauer asked. “I recognize this is a very sensitive topic, but it is truly out of control.”
Before July, police had discouraged charities from handing out food in Moore Square park itself, instead directing the groups to the surrounding sidewalks. But emails in July show Sauer and others sought legal justification to ban food giveaways on sidewalks, too.
Sauer said Wednesday that the effort followed complaints from business owners and downtown residents. They were concerned that the handouts made sidewalks impassable and left trash behind.
July was “when the peak of the sidewalk issue became an issue from a public health and safety standpoint,” Sauer said. “I was seeking legal advice on what should we do here.”
Carmen Zepp’s group, Human Beans Together, was one of the first charities told they couldn’t distribute food. Zepp says there was no major trash or crowding issue at Moore Square in July.
“It’s still a mystery to me, because there was nothing different in the month of July than any other month we were out there,” she said.
Sauer said many of the complaints included photos, some shown in a presentation to the City Council after the crackdown made news. But emails show many of the submitted photos were provided by Marbles Kids Museum in 2012, while others were taken more recently by Raleigh Police Lt. Kevin Carswell.
Carswell was critical of the charities in emails to fellow officers. “One guy just wanted to know how much the fine was and said that they would take the ticket and pay it,” he wrote on Aug. 12. “They didn’t care. The truth is, they are chalking the fine up as a cost of doing business. It’s all about making money.”
Carswell apparently disagreed with other downtown officers about whether sidewalk food handouts were legal. Sgt. John Marx said he thought they were acceptable as long as the sidewalks didn’t get blocked, but he told his boss in a July 14 email that Carswell was approaching the issue differently.
“I saw Lieutenant at the chief’s briefing for about a minute, and he seemed pleased/laughed about the fact that he irritated several groups that are feeding on the sidewalks,” Marx wrote. “He advised that they will be burning up my phone on Monday.”
Carswell wasn’t the only city employee compiling evidence to support the crackdown on food handouts. Public Affairs Director Jayne Kirkpatrick sent a video crew to Moore Square in July to document how the feedings impact the park.
“We are developing a public education campaign on the harm that is done by persons feeding the homeless in Moore Square,” Kirkpatrick wrote to Raleigh Television Network staffers on July 10. “Therefore, I need photos of the feedings, the debris that remains, the rodents, the collection by (trash crews). I need extensive footage.”
‘Nothing is off the table’
City staff continued to gather data after the crackdown generated a backlash. The day after the incident, Richard Hoffman of the Raleigh Police Intelligence Center was asked by Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown to compile the photos along with crime statistics and other information about Moore Square. City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin had requested the information for the city council’s special meeting, according to emails.
Hoffman’s report included 40 pages of anonymous Internet postings from sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor and SeeClickFix. Hoffman highlighted online complaints about the park such as “it is sketchy and a lot of homeless hang out near here.”
“I think utilizing social media to demonstrate the opinion of the silent majority of citizens that the park is unsanitary, misused and unsafe would be helpful,” Hoffman wrote Aug. 26 to Deck-Brown. “While everyone has expressed their views concerning the plight of the homeless and feeding them, no one has discussed or brought forward the real issue: the proper function and use of the park.”
Zepp thinks anonymous online comments aren’t an appropriate barometer of public opinion. “You can go on there and create numerous guest accounts,” she said. “There is something wrong for town officials to think that’s how people really feel.”
City leaders are now gathering opinions about the issue in a public forum – a task force of stakeholders which held its first meeting Tuesday night. The group will hold two more meetings led by assistant city manager Dan Howe before making recommendations to the city council in November.
“Right now, nothing is off the table,” Sauer said of the talks. “Anything can be and will be considered as alternatives, including Moore Square park.”
But Zepp said that city officials’ actions so far point to a particular goal: banning food distribution at Moore Square.
“I totally feel there’s a predetermined outcome, but I will still go to the meetings to say that I’ve tried,” she said, adding that she wasn’t sent any notice about this week’s meeting. “This is just an effort to save face because it went so horribly wrong the first time.”