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Fargo commissioner Piepkorn says downtown seen as 'not safe,' wants greater police presence

Fargo Police Department will have more officers downtown, but it says partners like the Downtown Engagement Center are essential.

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Fargo Deputy Mayor Dave Piepkorn during the Fargo City Commission meeting on Jan. 24, 2022. Piepkorn called for an increase of visible police presence downtown at the Monday, Sept. 19 meeting.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum
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FARGO – Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn said the perception in Fargo is that downtown is not safe, noting public safety is one of the city's primary responsibilities.

Piepkorn, at the Fargo City Commission meeting on Monday, Sept. 19, called for an increase of visible police presence downtown. He specifically called out “aggressive” panhandling.

“Aggressive” panhandling, defined by the Fargo City Ordinances as “intimidating another person into giving away money or goods," is illegal throughout the city.

Panhandling, however, is legal. It is only illegal in 10 specific types of areas in Fargo , according to the ordinance, including the Downtown Business District.

Captain Chris Helmick of the Fargo Police Department told commissioners they are going to have officers downtown on a more consistent basis, starting this spring.

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“It’s not just a police issue,” Helmick clarified, stressing it takes a lot of community partners to solve mental health issues, addiction disorders and problems often faced by those experiencing homelessness.

He said Fargo police work closely with the Downtown Engagement Center, Fargo's facility for the general homeless population and run by the Fargo Cass Public Health Department’s harm reduction division.

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The former Fargo police station, at Fourth Street and Third Avenue North in downtown, is an "engagement center" where the homeless can receive help.
Dave Samson / The Forum

With a growing city comes a growing number of people experiencing homelessness gathering downtown . The downtown engagement center sees 60-70 people a day, according to Mayor Tim Mahoney.

“We need to look for solutions,” Mahoney said.

Commissioner John Strand called for an increase in funding for the engagement center, with more staff and extended hours of operations.

“We’ll throw a lot of money at jails and prisons,” Strand said, “but how much do we throw at addiction and to keep people out of jail?”

He referenced the $34 to $39 million dollars of COVID relief funds earmarked for an expansion to the Cass County Jail .

Strand proposed housing options and public bathrooms for those experiencing homelessness, and free emergency call boxes for everyone to help increase the feeling of public safety in downtown.

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“I think we put our money where our mouth is,” Stand said, adding public safety in a growing city will cost money.

Piepkorn called for people to “go someplace else” if they are only here to harass people and panhandle, adding that Fargo should help people who want it.

Commissioner Arlette Preston, however, said that, “Living downtown… I rarely, if ever, feel unsafe.” She said she walks her dogs downtown several times a day, occasionally at 2 a.m.

Preston called for a housing-first approach, helping people where they are at and increasing the resources for the harm reduction unit.

“We really have to get a committee that is working and addressing downtown issues,” Preston said, calling for long term strategies to address these issues.

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