Government & Politics

KC considers law against street harassment of walkers, cyclists and others

Kansas City could soon be joining a growing number of communities that have enacted anti-harassment ordinances that impose fines and jail sentences on perpetrators found guilty of street harassment.
Kansas City could soon be joining a growing number of communities that have enacted anti-harassment ordinances that impose fines and jail sentences on perpetrators found guilty of street harassment. The Kansas City Star

Two or three times a week, Kayla Williams’ daily walk to work is ruined by catcalls, whistling or some jerk honking his horn as he speeds by on 39th Street.

“It’s startling,” the 33-year-old office assistant said. “I’ve even been cut off on the sidewalk before.”

Whether it’s crude remarks shouted from car windows at mothers walking their kids to school, or bicyclists nearly squeezed off the road by angry motorists not interested in sharing it, such all-too-common acts of intimidation do more than make the targets fearful.

They also undermine initiatives aimed at fighting obesity and encouraging alternative forms of transportation here and across the nation.

Which is why Kansas City could soon be joining a growing number of communities that have enacted anti-harassment ordinances that impose fines and jail sentences on perpetrators found guilty of street harassment.

“We’re encouraging people to walk and bike more,” Kansas City Councilman John Sharp said, “and they certainly ought to be allowed to do that without harassment.”

Broad anti-harassment ordinances are already on the books in Kansas and Missouri.

But before the end of the month, Sharp, chairman of the council’s public safety and emergency services committee, hopes to pass an ordinance that would outlaw threatening and dangerous behavior to protect “vulnerable road users.” That includes everyone from bikers, walkers and cyclists to people in wheelchairs or waiting at bus stops.

The ordinance is based on similar ones passed in Columbia, St. Louis, Independence and Greenwood, Mo., in the last five years. Sharp and advocacy group BikeWalkKC hope to have Kansas City’s ordinance on the books by Oct. 8.

That’s International Walk to School Day. Fifty years ago, half of American school kids biked or walked to school. Now it’s less than 15 percent at a time when many children are overweight and need more exercise.

But attempts to reverse that trend aren’t going to work, Sharp said, unless parents believe the streets are safe. Nor will anyone other than the bravest cyclists use the new bike lanes the city is striping across town if they’re fearful of being run off the road by aggressive motorists.

“What we’re aiming at is the most threatening and dangerous behavior,” Sharp said.

BikeWalkKC proposed the ordinance partly out of a concern that women, especially, were reluctant to exercise out in public for fear of being harassed.

A study this year by the national group Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of American women report being subjected to harassment or worse on the streets, while just a quarter of men have.

That also was reflected in comments made by participants in last spring’s KC Women’s Bike Summit. Female cyclists said they were often hassled at stop signs and red lights by men.

“We found a high rate of women who said they would bike and walk more, but they feel harassed,” said BikeWalkKC co-founder Sarah Shipley.

BikeWalkKC also has been hearing from women who say they’ve been subjected to threats and taunts while walking their kids to schools in some parts of the city.

“We have a gut feeling where the bad spots are,” Shipley said. She won’t identify those hot spots until data back it up, but a survey is underway.

Ordinances specifically addressing street harassment have been on the rise the past five years or so. The earliest ones were narrow and singled out harassment aimed at bicyclists.

Columbia passed its bicycle harassment ordinance in 2009. Anyone found to have harassed a cyclist verbally or by throwing objects, among other threatening behavior, was guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

It was later amended to include pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. Which is also the case in Independence and St. Louis, where Alderman Scott Ogilvie added yet another wrinkle.

“Mine is actually neutral,” Ogilvie said.

In St. Louis, cyclists or pedestrians can also be fined up to $500 and spend 90 days in jail for threatening motorists or placing them in danger.

It’s hard to gauge whether anti-harassment laws are anything more than feel-good political statements.

“We have not had a single case in the four years and nine months that I’ve been here,” said Columbia city prosecutor Stephen Richey.

Same goes for St. Louis in the two years since its ordinance was passed, Ogilvie said. It’s not that citations weren’t warranted, he said. It’s that ordinances like it are hard to enforce absent a police officer witnessing someone harassing a pedestrian or bicyclist. Criminal cases require evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to support conviction.

A victim’s word alone won’t cut it.

That’s why Los Angeles, Berkeley and a number of other California communities have passed anti-harassment ordinances that allow victims to bring civil actions. Civil cases require only a preponderance of evidence for the plaintiff to prevail.

But even in California, said Christopher Kidd at the Oakland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, few if any violators have been taken to court and paid a fine.

Sharp recognizes the pitfalls but thinks that, in certain circumstances, his ordinance could be a tool for law enforcement to address harassment allegations in certain hot spots, such as routes to schools and sketchy street corners.

“We feel that if there are areas where there are continual problems,” he said, “we can enforce it.”

The exact language and penalties included in the ordinance haven’t yet been finalized.

Some of Kayla Williams’ friends ask her why she simply doesn’t change her route or drive to work, rather than put up with the ill treatment she gets.

But that would feel like surrender, she said, and she’d lose the connection she feels to what generally is a friendly neighborhood.

“I don’t walk down the street terrified every day,” she said.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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