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Security director examines proposed panhandling restrictions

Russell Wolff is the director of Grand Valley State University Pew campus security. In light of the proposed panhandling ordinance, he shares his experiences with panhandlers and enforcing campus rules.

/Sara Ransom

Additional information on panhandling in Grand Rapids

Panhandling is ruled to be a First Amendment right, but some communities have passed local ordinances to restrict the act. The Grand Rapids City Commission has proposed limitations on panhandling, modeled after the community of Kentwood.

On June 3, the Grand Rapids City Commission delayed the proposed ban with a divided 3-3 vote. Decision on the panhandling ordinance has been postponed to allow time to further review the proposed restrictions.

For the past five years Russell Wolff has had many experiences with panhandlers on the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Pew Campus and the surrounding area.

"It’s a public university; panhandlers are welcome to come on our campus,” says Wolff.

Russell Wolff is the director of GVSU’s Pew Campus Security in Grand Rapids. He has worked in law enforcement for the past 28 years. In October 2009 he retired as the assistant chief of police in Meridian Charter Township. Since then he has been director of Pew Campus security.

The best way to help panhandlers on campus is to educate them, Wolff says. Security officers will tell panhandlers that they can stay on campus as long as they do not ask for money or bother students. 

In the past, Wolff has received complaints from students and staff when panhandling behavior occurred on campus. He says that many students do not report panhandling as frequently as it happens.

Wolff says the perpetrators that refuse to adhere to the campus rules are banned from the premises and are not allowed back on campus for four years. If the situation worsens, the Grand Rapids Police Department gets involved.

However, Wolff says the majority of individuals that officers come in contact with are very cordial and polite. They will stop asking for money and respect the campus rules.

Often times Wolff has observed that the few individuals who refuse to adhere to campus rules appear to have a mental illness, substance abuse problem or alcohol problem.

There is no type of training or protocol for officers when dealing with the homeless or panhandlers.

“When you deal with people in our kind of business you deal with everybody on an individual basis,” says Wolff. “It doesn’t matter if the person is panhandling, the person is homeless, the person is a visitor or just somebody walking through that got angry for some reason- they all get treated the same."

Wolff says he is in favor of the proposed panhandling restrictions.

“Professionally, I would like to see something happen with it. But I understand that this is America. I understand that people have the right to do certain things even though I may not agree with them,” says Wolff. 

Wolff expresses the difficulty of enforcing the laws of jurisdiction and helping the law abiding citizens that are being confronted by people asking for money. As a police officer, Wolff tries to find a balance between the two but he says it does not always work in favor of the general public.

When Wolff first began working at the Pew Campus there were very few panhandlers in the area. It was not until the federal court ruled that panhandling is a First Amendment right that the frequency of panhandlers in the area grew.

Some of the proposed restrictions would include banning panhandlers to beg from a driver or passenger on a public street. It would make it illegal to ask for money within 15 feet of public bathrooms, ATM machines or public transportation. The ordinance would also make it illegal to solicit anyone who is waiting in line to enter a building or event.

If the proposed restrictions pass, Wolff thinks that the number of panhandlers will decrease again.

“If anything is decided then I am sure they will be enforced just like any other ordinance or state law,” says Wolff.

Including Wolff, there are eight uniformed officers, two part time officers, and a security manager that are responsible for the Pew Campus, Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences and the regional centers in Holland, Muskegon, Traverse City and Detroit.

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