Meanwhile, in Morgantown …

City takes panhandling law off the books

Last week, the Morgantown City Council voted to repeal a 2005 panhandling law that is the basis for a federal lawsuit against the city brought by Mountain State Justice.

City Code Section 371.10 is a true “panhandling” prohibition in a way that Monongalia County’s “safety” ordinance is not. As Ben Conley reported, the law in question states it’s illegal to ask for money or other objects of value by any means with the intention of the money or objects being transferred from an occupant of a vehicle within a public roadway at that time and place. It also outlaws standing in any portion of a public right-of-way to solicit business, goods or money.

The law was challenged on the basis of First and Fourteenth Amendment protections. Similar laws have previously been found unconstitutional by the courts and it’s not a far reach to think this one would be, too.

So the question is what now?

Will the city write a replacement? If so, will it take the county’s approach and frame the prohibition in terms of safety? Or will it choose to leave such a law off its books and simply enforce the county’s ordinance instead?

Homelessness and poverty and, therefore, panhandling aren’t going away any time soon, so we doubt the city will merely turn a blind eye. It will have to decide eventually how it wants to handle the issue.

Civilian Review Board wants to review traffic stop data

The Morgantown Civilian Police Review and Advisory Board plans to analyze Morgantown Police Department traffic stop and arrest data to see if there’s a trend of pulling over people of color more often.

That’s not a bad idea. But it won’t be an easy task.           

There is a national trend of racially disparate traffic stops. The Standford Open Policing Project has analyzed data from nearly 100 million traffic stops nationwide since 2015. In terms of raw data, Black people get pulled over at higher rates than white or Hispanic/Latino drivers. The researchers are the first to admit that the trends aren’t definitive proof of discrimination, but there is indication that police may use a lower standard when deciding to search a Black person’s vehicle vs. a white person’s.

When it comes to Morgantown specifically, as was pointed out during the review board’s meeting, the prevailing narrative is that out-of-town drug dealers who are Black drive up MPD’s numbers. The review board’s analysis could determine if there is any truth to that.

The problem the board will face is that race/ethnicity hasn’t been required for reports for nearly a decade, which means that demographic data may or may not be available. It would take extra time and effort, but reports that don’t record race could be weeded out. However, that could cause its own problems.

If the question is specifically “Are the majority of people of color who are stopped from out-of-state?”, then the board has a good place to start: 227 reports of Black people getting pulled over in 2018. As Board Secretary Bob Cohen noted, the board can find out who those people were. We do, however, offer a word of caution: Many WVU students may be recorded as being from “out-of-state,” but they had a perfectly legitimate reason for being in Morgantown. It will take extra effort to see who was affiliated with the university at the time of the incident, but it could make a difference for interpreting the data later.

We’re curious to see what comes out of the review board’s analysis and we look forward to seeing the results.