Ordinance could force Chicago business owners into policing property

Chicago doesn’t need another law that makes it harder to start a business.

And business owners don’t need rules that add “policing” to their laundry list of responsibilities.

But if you own a tobacco shop, a filling station or a convenience store, the line between proprietor and neighborhood watchman may get a lot blurrier if an ordinance moved forward by Chicago’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection becomes law.

The “loitering proposal,” as dubbed by the Chicago Tribune, “would make it tougher for a business to be reopened at a spot where there have been past problems with illegal activities.” The ordinance, as written now, gives the mayor the power to impose a partial suspension or revocation of a license if there is a “pattern of loitering.” The proposal would allow the city to mandate times of day that a business would have to close based on loitering patterns.

It would also put the onus of dealing with loitering on business owners. The proposal would mandate filling-station and convenience-store owners report loitering to city officials, and tobacco- and convenience-store owners would be on the hook for reporting loitering within 25 feet of their business’ entrance.

The reasoning behind this ordinance proposal is unclear.

It seems the effect of the proposal, however, would be to punish businesses and specific neighborhoods for criminal behavior they aren’t committing. If the city can force a business to close at 7 p.m. because “loitering” reportedly began regularly at 7:30 p.m., for example, it is essentially dictating when that business can make money. It would also cut off access to customers who have done nothing wrong. And it would shorten potential work hours for employees trying to make a living.

The obligation to report loitering makes it seem like City Council is aiming to put policing responsibilities on private citizens and business owners.

This could be due in part to the Chicago Police Department’s thin-stretched resources.

Chicago had 1,500 fewer police officers and staff protecting neighborhoods and families compared to eight years ago as of April 2014. And the city’s police pension fund has just $0.25 for every dollar required to pay out future benefits.

Even so, if illegal activity exists in any neighborhood throughout the city, the police already have the ability to address the concerns without threatening business owners with punishment if they fail to report issues.

It’s hard to understand the logic behind this proposed ordinance. Far South Side Ald. Anthony Beale told the Tribune:

"Nobody wants to hurt business, but when business is hurting the community we have a responsibility to step forward to see what we can do to give our community some relief when we have these business owners who are in their stores behind 2 inches of glass," Beale said. "And they're shielded from the activities that are hurting our community, but yet they're making money around the clock."

This thought process assumes that business owners are guilty by association if criminals happen to be present near their property. And Beale should recognize that these business owners are taxpayers who already fund the policing of their property and community at large. They are not public employees to be directed by an alderman.

If property owners are participating in illegal activity, that’s one thing. Otherwise, the city should stick to policing criminals – not further hampering business.

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