City Council to act on street harassment law

westport-street-sceneThe full city council will vote today on whether to approve a law against street harassment that is reportedly rampant, especially downtown and in Midtown.

The city council public safety committee on Wednesday unanimously approved the law and sent it to the full council.

If approved, Kansas City will join Independence, Columbia and St. Louis in adopting such a law.

The Kansas City law states that it is to protect bicyclists, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs, blind people with canes and guide dogs.

Threatening them, throwing objects at them, driving at them or engaging in any conduct that creates a risk of injury would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine from $50 to $500 or a jail term up to six months.

“It’s a great step in the right direction,” Sarah Shipley of BikeWalkKC told the committee Wednesday.

The bike group’s written report included results of a recent city survey that found 82 percent of bikers and 75 percent of walkers had been harassed in way “such as verbal comments, honking, whistling, kissing noises, leering/staring, attempted or achieved assault, etc.”

Two thirds of respondents said harassment was a barrier to riding a bike or walking and half said it was a barrier to riding the bus.

The survey found that 37 percent were harassed downtown and 17 percent in Midtown.

Many groups wrote letters supporting the new law, including MainCor, Kansas City Track Club, the city health department and America Walks.

Craig Eichelman, state director of the AARP in Missouri, also spoke Wednesday in support of the law.

He said more elderly people are walking and riding bikes and finding harassment a problem.

Councilman John Sharp, chair of the public safety committee and co-sponsor of the ordinance, said he became aware of widespread harassment when he was bombarded with accounts of it on a radio talk show.

Councilman John Ford raised questions of whether the law would violate first amendment rights or be unfair.

What if a driver honked at or yelled at a jogger at dusk after almost hitting him because the jogger was not wearing reflective clothing, Ford asked, or what if a driver yelled at a jaywalker?

Sharp said prosecutors must prove the offending action had a purpose of frightening or injuring.

The report by BikeWalkKC states that harassment is hindering a nationwide biking and hiking movement.

“Any woman or man who has experienced street harassment knows that it can be anything from disturbing to traumatic – to the point where it can persuade an individual to stow their bike away in the garage, pack those running shoes in the closet and grab the car keys instead,” the report states.

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