Orlando police are using undercover stings to nab panhandlers downtown, a largely unknown practice now coming under scrutiny, reports the Orlando Sentinel. The city has made 186 panhandling arrests since Oct. 1, more than half of them resulting from “decoy teams” of undercover, plainclothes officers who wait near suspected beggars until they are asked for money, food, a cigarette, or anything else of value. The tactic puts Orlando on a short list of cities that routinely use undercover cops — who more commonly target drugs and prostitution — against panhandlers. Mayor Buddy Dyer said the city saw a spike in aggressive panhandling and that an increase in undercover patrols was needed to ensure the safety of workers and visitors.
A new ban on feeding the homeless in a park has made Orlando city the nationwide butt of jokes on late-night television and earned Orlando a likely spot on the “meanest cities” list put out by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The group Food Not Bombs has defied the city’s 3-week-old ban. Critics said the undercover panhandling operation is a poor use of resources in light of the city’s record homicide rate. “Don’t they have something better to do with their time?” asked George Crossley of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There have been 37 murders in Orlando this year, and they’re out there using plainclothes officers to run sting operations on panhandlers. It would be nice if they focus on that rather than on throwing someone in jail for asking for food or money.”