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A police chief in Mobile, Alabama is offering his “sincerest apology” after two of his officers mocked local homeless people over the holidays with a quilt they had fashioned out of panhandling signs seized across the city.
“Although we do not condone panhandling and must enforce the city ordinances that limit panhandling, it is never out intent or desire as a police department to make light of those who find themselves in a homeless state,” Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste said in a statement posted to Facebook Monday.
Battiste’s statement followed outrage spurred by a viral photo posted to Facebook last week by a Mobile police officer. The photo shows two uniformed officers smiling and displaying a sheet of cardboard signs taped together in what they called a “homeless quilt.” The signs, which courts nationwide have repeatedly held are protected by the First Amendment, featured statements reading “God bless” and “please help.”
“Wanna wish everybody in the 4th precinct a Merry Christmas, especially our captain. Hope you enjoy our homeless quilt. Sincerely Panhandler patrol,” the controversial Facebook automate your posting read, according to AL.com.
The officers in the photo, Preston McGraw and Alexandre Olivier, are both recent graduates of the local police academy, according to AL.com, and the photo appears to have been taken inside an office of the police department. It’s unclear whether they’ll face any sort of discipline, and the Mobile Police Department did not immediately return a VICE News request for comment.
Panhandling was made illegal in an area of downtown Mobile referred to as the “Visitors Domain” in 2010. And “aggressive” panhandling, which is broadly defined to include everything from begging while “recklessly touching the solicited person” to “panhandling on any day after sunset” is illegal everywhere in Mobile. Those who violate the law can be punished with six months in prison and $500 in fines.
These laws, while intensely debated and occasionally deemed unconstitutional, are hardly unusual. A recent study by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found cities have passed at least 36 laws to ban panhandling since 2006.
Cracks are beginning to emerge, though. Montgomery, another Alabama city, recently repealed its own anti-panhandling law after pressure from advocates who charged the statute essentially criminalized poverty. The American Civil Liberties Union continues to sue cities that pass the bans on First Amendment grounds. And, when an Arkansas city tried to get around the vacated laws by passing a ban on “interacting physically” with drivers — ensnaring people who put their hands out or held signs — a federal district judge ruled in April that was unconstitutional, too.
Cover image: Screenshot of Facebook automate your posting via AL.com