Reno Police Crack Down On Panhandlers Downtown

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Reno police have launched a program they say is designed to keep drunks and panhandlers who commit crimes from the downtown tourist core.

But critics argue the effort will target the homeless and strain the capacity of the Washoe County jail.

Under the program, people with a history of misdemeanor charges will be given an option - receive a suspended sentence and stay away from downtown or go to jail.

Downtown bicycle officers will work the city attorney's office to identify offenders they think are good candidates for the program.

Offenders will be recommended for the program if they've been arrested or cited at least three times in six months in the downtown area.

Offenses include any felonies and misdemeanors as drinking in public, aggressive panhandling, trespassing, petty larceny, assault, battery, jaywalking or being drunk in the roadway.

Called chronic offender mapping, the program is part of the city's sweeping plan for cleaning up downtown and making it more inviting to visitors.

Other efforts include a temporary ban on new liquor licenses downtown and hiring retired police officers to increase patrols downtown.

Assistant Police Chief Jim Weston said the new mapping program could give chronic lawbreakers the push they need to straighten out.

"We're trying to break that cycle of repeat offending," Weston told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

But officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada wonder if the program isn't just a way to sweep the homeless off the street.

"It lends itself to the removal of people who tourists don't want to see, which is totally inappropriate," said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the Nevada ACLU. "It raises the specter that it's aimed less at crime and aimed more at people who aren't wanted downtown."

Weston said the plan would apply only to lawbreakers, and homelessness itself is not a crime.

The Washoe County sheriff's office also has concerns that the program could lead to crowding at the Washoe County jail, where population has been hovering near the cap of 1,124 inmates.

Several inmates were released to a house-arrest program over the Labor Day weekend when jail population hit 1,131, Assistant Sheriff Don Means said.

Under the mapping program, those who are caught downtown after agreeing to terms of the suspended sentence could be charged with failure to comply with a court order and also would face reinstatement of their sentence.

The suspended sentences likely would be several months long as an incentive for the defendants to keep their agreement to stay out of downtown, officials said.

"If you have somebody up here for 180 days on just a misdemeanor, that's one bed tied up for six months," Means said.

"We fully recognize the reason they're doing it. It's a quality-of-life issue. Unfortunately, we're the only hotel in town."