Georgetown Mayor Bill West raised a furor with calls to incarcerate people asking for money

Georgetown Mayor Bill West has said he might have spoken imprecisely when it came to recent social media comments regarding panhandlers in the town

West’s remarks that panhandlers should be detained by city police, including an admonition to Deputy Chief of Police Ralph Holm saying, “I want all begging people to be arrested from this point on,” raised a furor in the town. Many comments on West’s Facebook page supported the mayor, while others disagreed.

Reached by phone Tuesday morning, West referred to a joint statement from both the town government and the town’s police department, which he said clarified the situation.

While acknowledging panhandlers can be arrested depending on the individual situation, it is the town’s policy to try to help them, if possible, the statement read. The 400-word document was prepared by Town Solicitor Stephani J. Ballard and Town Manager Eugene S. Dvornick Jr., West said.

In part, the statement reads, “The Town of Georgetown and Georgetown Police Department is proud of their efforts in proactively dealing with persons in crisis, including avoiding arrest, fines, and incarceration when the public safety is not affected.”

However, people who do feel threatened in these situations still should call 911 or the police department, the statement added.

The town recently began a partnership with Connections Community Support Programs that will have a clinician respond with a police officer to deal with people having mental health or substance abuse issues.

West, a former police officer and state trooper, said he had reacted too quickly when faced with residents’ complaints about being accosted by people begging for money. In a March 22 FB post, West noted, “Can’t even go to a bathroom without people asking for money. Needs to stop or get arrested.’

West said that statement was incorrect.

“Arrest is your last alternative,” he said, adding there are “other avenues to take,” including finding ways to help people with problems.

“Sometimes you can address people and say if you don’t stop something you’re going to be arrested, and it straightens them up. And then there’s other times you have to take that action,” he said.

The idea, West added, was to try to get people to behave themselves.

The word “arrest,” he added, “I guess that was the choice of words I used at that time.”

His aim was to generate some civic response to the problem, West said, in an effort to get people to take advantage of treatment centers in town.

In that respect, he’s succeeded, West added.

Area residents should ignore panhandlers if accosted, but also should notify the police who will send out an officer and the Connections Community Support Program clinician, West said.

The mayor noted his words, even if imprecise, did focus people’s attention on the issue.

“My town manager, he’s told me, ‘Don’t do that no more,’” West said.

“But it’s bad when my phone doesn’t do nothing but ring with people complaining” about panhandlers, he said.