AUGUSTA — Downtown merchants and workers say they’ve been attacked and beaten walking home from their businesses, had customers’ and clients’ lives threatened by “street people,” witnessed vagrants smoking synthetic chemicals, hallucinating and scaring attendees of waterfront concerts, and the fear those activities are making people more and more hesitant to spend time downtown.

And they asked city councilors Thursday what the city can do to help make it stop.

Helena Gagliano-McFarland, owner of Gagliano’s Italian Bistro downtown, said her husband was attacked while walking home a short distance after work, and his nose was broken and will require reconstructive surgery. She said relatives visiting from Italy also were attacked downtown.

She and Darren Ripley, coordinator of the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery, who works in the Olde Federal Building downtown, said they’ve witnessed what they believe to be prostitution downtown, as well as many other forms of what they called disgusting behavior.

“It’s sad someone has to be too scared to walk home for fear of being attacked,” Gagliano-McFarland said. “Our question is, is there something that can be done? Is the police force able to do something to try to stop this?”

Mayor William Stokes and merchants said the problem has become more visible as the city’s downtown is revitalized, attracting more people to shop, work and live there.

Police Chief Robert Gregoire said police do directed enforcement downtown, but they can only be there so often, as they also have to patrol other parts of the city, and funding is scarce. He said he has advocated for years for funding to increase community policing.

Gregoire said most of the troublemakers are people with substance-abuse problems.

Stokes said there will be a conversation about having a greater police presence downtown, but he warned that significantly more patrols could require more tax dollars to fund them.

Ripley said there is a group of people who buy spice, an apparently legal synthetic chemical, at three stores downtown, and smoke it, starting early in the morning and continuing all day, at the gazebo on the city’s west side waterfront.

He said at least once a week an ambulance goes to that spot to pick up people because of their reactions to drug use.

He said the daytime is more dangerous than the night, and he said he’s watched as fewer and fewer people who don’t cause trouble spend time downtown, for fear of being assaulted or yelled at.

“Women in my building are scared,” he said. “One woman works the same hours I do, because she knows I can get her out of their safely. She’s ready to take her business out of the downtown, and that is not what we want.”

Ashley Shawley, manager of KeyBank’s downtown branch, said the problem has developed largely over the last year and a half. She said people have defecated and urinated in the bank’s lobby, and the first thing she does most mornings is put on rubber gloves to pick up trash left in the nearby courtyard.

City Manager William Bridgeo said possibilities to improve behavior downtown could include security cameras and increased police patrols.

Some of the activities merchants and others have complained about, such as loitering and panhandling, may be bothersome to some, but they aren’t illegal, Bridgeo said. The city needs to be safe while not infringing on people’s constitutional rights, he said.

Steve Pecukonis, downtown manager and executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said he has heard from some merchants who observe activity such as what they believe to be illegal drug transactions, panhandling and other things they fear could prevent people from coming downtown.

While the problem is much smaller than what happens in large cities, he said, it does affect “what people say and think about downtown Augusta.”

Early this year, the city had four security cameras installed downtown, at a cost of about $6,500, focused on the Commercial Street area, which runs above and parallel to Water Street, after downtown landlords said some of their tenants’ cars had been broken into while parked overnight in the area.

Bridgeo said the cameras have not yet captured video of a crime occurring. He said the cameras are not normally monitored, but the video they record would be reviewed if police receive a complaint about something occurring in that area which should be viewed.

Bridgeo said Thursday’s discussion would be the start of the council and city staff’s efforts to address the problem.

Councilor Patrick Paradis suggested taking funds from the city’s contingency account to pay for increased police patrols this summer.

“It’d give some short-term action while we work on a long-term solution,” he said.

Bridgeo said he could meet with Gregoire to prepare an estimate of the proposal and report back to councilors at their next meeting.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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