Charlotte City Council’s Housing, Safety and Community (HSC) Committee voted 3-2 Monday to recommend recriminalizing certain ordinances such as drinking, defecating and urinating in public, along with other ordinances previously decriminalized by default in 2022.
Passed in 2021, Senate Bill 300 ordered cities to re-specify which of their respective code violations would be enforced through criminal means and which violations would be enforced by civil means rather than allow those cities to enforce violations criminally by default.
In 2022, council voted to allow criminal enforcement of seven Charlotte ordinances, like those dealing with animal abuse and noise violations, through policing, though they did not include ordinances that could be seen as criminalizing poverty in that vote.
The committee’s motion on Monday recommends that eight ordinances be recriminalized in Charlotte including panhandling, public consumption of alcohol, public masturbation, loitering for the purpose of drug activity, urination and defecation on prohibited property, unauthorized persons in parking lots, trespassing on motor vehicles and one called “behavior (in public parks).”
The topic came back to council in August 2023 after a large group of Fourth Ward residents showed up to a public forum to voice their concerns with certain behaviors they had witnessed in their neighborhoods, including public drinking, urination and defecation.
Following that forum, council members discussed the importance of not overreaching so as to criminalize poverty. Then-Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston pointed out that the main library branch had been torn down and the ongoing construction had left many neighbors who experience homelessness without a public bathroom to use in Uptown.
Council in October discussed exploring short-term solutions such as the urgent need to deploy public bathrooms with the help of local partners.
Assistant city manager Shawn Heath presented the recommended ordinances up for recriminalization to the HSC Committee on Monday, emphasizing that the city is still looking into non-enforcement options.
“The recommendations here are not intended to … ‘criminalize’ homelessness,” Heath said. “While we’ll focus primarily on the enforcement piece today, we will provide a little bit of perspective on those other non-enforcement-related strategies that we are equally motivated to advance.”
The non-enforcement policies, referred to in Heath’s presentation as the “Holistic Lens,” consist of street outreach, mental health and substance abuse services, and affordable housing options.
City staff worked with CMPD to determine which decriminalized ordinances warranted consideration to have the criminal penalty restored, Heath said. The ordinances are still illegal and are currently punishable by a civil citation.
CMPD deputy chief David Robinson, however, said civil citations are rarely written by officers because subjects in crisis or addiction do not pay the fines. He added that recriminalizing the ordinances is meant to be a deterrent and to change the behavior from a compliance standpoint.
Committee members Reneé Johnson and Tiawana Brown opposed the motion to send the recriminalization recommendations to the full council for a vote.
“This will affect our homeless citizens at a disproportionate level and we know this,” Johnson said. “Just because we say we’re not criminalizing [homelessness], that’s exactly what this is doing.”
Brown disagreed with Robinson’s use of “compliance,” saying that when “compliance doesn’t go the way that it should, [we know] how fast it escalates.”
“The officer was big on compliance. I’m big on harm reduction and mental health services,” she added.
“I think that, as a council, this does need to be addressed for the quality of life for our Uptown residents,” Johnson said. “However, let’s utilize these non-enforcement strategies.”
The committee again discussed implementing more public restrooms in the areas that have seen issues with public urination and defecation, though no specifics have been worked out on that urgent need.
Committee member Dimple Ajmera on Monday moved that the committee vote to place the recommendations for criminal enforcement before the full council for additional deliberation.
“This is not just about safety, this is a public health issue,” Dimple Ajmera said.
LaWana Mayfield seconded the motion, though she emphasized that city staff could have already moved forward with its non-enforcement strategies and placement of public bathrooms. Victoria Watlington casted the third vote to send the recommendations to council.
Robert Dawkins with SAFE Coalition NC, an Action NC group advocating for criminal justice reform and accountability from law enforcement, took to Twitter to voice his concern about the motion on Tuesday.
“[Council members are] quick to talk about upward mobility but want to arrest those most impacted by the lack of it,” SAFE Coalition NC said on Twitter.
“We are asking all community groups to oppose this change in ordinance that does nothing to address the problem,” SAFE Coalition NC’s post read. “Sending someone that’s unhoused to jail does nothing to address the root causes.”
The motion will be brought to the full Charlotte City Council for deliberation and a potential vote at an upcoming business meeting, likely in February.
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