Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Profanity Police

wmctv.com

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - From her perch on a downtown planter, Martha Murphy Rhodes recently opened up during an interview with Action News 5.

Rhodes, who has lived on the streets for nearly 10 years, said she's seen and heard a lot - including a lot of bad language.

"Everything," she said, "and I'm not a cusser, so I don't speak such words."

Those who do may find themselves off the streets and behind bars.

Willie Norfleet - recently sited for aggressive panhandling, public intoxication, an open container violation, and fighting - is the poster child for the new crack-down on bad behavior in downtown Memphis. The Center City Commission's new bike patrol even arrested him for cursing.

Public safety coordinator Larry Bloom makes no apologies for policing profanity.

"Everyone should be allowed to enjoy the public space, and when the language being used tends to incite or breach the peace, then it becomes against the law," Bloom said.

In most cases, those caught cursing are usually involved in an argument or fight.

"Without exaggeration, our officers get compliments on a daily basis from people down here," Bloom said.

According the city of Memphis' Disorderly Conduct Code, it is illegal to use, "abusive or obscene language intending that it be heard by members of the public and uttered with the intention to disturb the hearer."

The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center has been a critic of the bike patrols since they hit the streets.

"In the safest precinct in the city - downtown Memphis - we now have a private police force that is policing people's language," Jacob Flowers of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center said. "That is simply unacceptable."

Flowers believes the private security force is going way beyond its original mission of addressing aggressive panhandling.

"In the last two months of this security patrol alone, over 42 percent of the calls they took were in no way related to aggressive panhandling," Flowers said.

The Center City Commission opened its records upon an Action News 5 request. Since the bike patrols began at the beginning of April, there have been 358 documented cases of Aggressive Panhandling - the number one offense.

The number two offense was violation of open container laws.

Everything else paled in comparison, including cursing, which is usually only an issue when its loud and intrusive.

"I think a good test is if my mother or my minister was standing next to me," Bloom said. "Would I use that type of language?"

Critics say it's another way to harass the homeless, when resources should be going to help them.

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