Portland police have begun taking a harder line on disorderly and nuisance conduct in Bayside in an effort to uproot longstanding disruptive behavior that has become entrenched there.

As a result, more people are being cited for offenses such as public drinking and other anti-social behavior since the city made changes late last month.

“From what I have heard from the Bayside neighborhood, it’s having a positive impact,” City Manager Jon Jennings said. “We’re seeing societal norms creep back into the neighborhood. We cannot allow a small group of people to create problems for everyone else.”

But the crackdown has some homeless advocates concerned. They’re worried that the city that once tried – unsuccessfully – to ban panhandling in street medians is once again attempting to police its way out of issues associated with homelessness, addiction and poverty.

“We see this as starting to criminalize the homeless here in Portland,” said William Higgins, a formerly homeless man who is now an advocate for Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice. “We have human rights just like anyone else.”

The move comes as Portland considers building a new homeless shelter to replace its 31-year-old facility on Oxford Street, a converted apartment building and former auto garage that cannot accommodate the high demand for emergency shelter. It also comes as several pieces of land in Bayside once owned by the city are being developed into housing and other commercial uses.

This spring, the Maine Sunday Telegram detailed the rise in disorderly behavior in Bayside, fueled by the opioid epidemic and other substance use, as well as a sense among some people that those types of behavior are tolerated in the neighborhood, which sits between downtown and Interstate 295.

Local residents have seen a spike in recent years of open drug use, public drinking and assaults, as well as public urination, defecation and in some cases fornication. The neighborhood also saw several violent crimes this summer, including stabbings and a shooting.

Over the summer, city staff recommended creating a 200-bed shelter near the Westbrook line on Brighton Avenue, but Nason’s Corner residents vigorously opposed the plan, worrying that the crime and lewd behavior prevalent in Bayside would spring up in their neighborhood. Their opposition prompted the city to take another look at other locations and models for one to three new homeless shelters.

Jennings said Thursday that his directive to the police department has nothing to do with the shelter move, or the issues being raised by Nason’s Corner residents. Instead, he said it’s a continuation of Bayside Boost, a program launched two years ago that included increased patrols, while also focusing on improving sidewalks, streetlights and street-sweeping in the area.

“This is just really the next step in that entire process,” Jennings said. “I think it is important to hold people accountable for their behavior. We do it in the Old Port on Friday and Saturday night when the bars let out. And we do it with traffic enforcement. It’s important to hold the entire city accountable.”

Interim Police Chief Vern Malloch said two patrol officers continue to assist the community policing officer in Bayside. But instead of rotating officers from other patrols to fill those spots, Malloch said he’s dedicating a specific team of officers to the beat. And those officers are being directed to patrol the neighborhood on foot, rather than in vehicles, which can be difficult given the number of one-way streets.

The officers, who are getting to know the neighborhood and its bad actors, have also been given clear guidelines on enforcement.

“We felt like for a certain segment of people in Bayside there wasn’t enough threat of enforcement to gain the voluntary compliance,” Malloch said.

The police department could not immediately provide a comparative report of arrests since the effort was launched three weeks ago. More arrests are not the point, according to Cmdr. James Sweatt, who said it’s about changing the culture and behavior.

“We’re not tracking arrests as a sign of success,” Sweatt said. “We’re basing it off: Do people feel safer? And is there some semblance of order in the community so services can be provided?”

The trick for police, Malloch said, is to ensure they’re not simply pushing those issues into other neighborhoods. “That is something we are keenly aware that can happen,” he said.

So far, neighborhood leaders say it’s making a difference. But for how long is anyone’s guess.

Sarah Michniewicz, who is president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association and lives next door to the city shelter, said she’s noticed a difference. She said the new beat officers canvassed neighborhood residents to get a sense about the types of illicit activities and trouble spots people were concerned about. She said the city has also painted several new crosswalks – a small but important move that helps create a sense of order.

“It feels like we are off to a good start,” Michniewicz said. “Fewer people are loitering in the street, and as I walk down the sidewalk, folks standing in groups are moving aside to let me through, or will remind each other to do so. There seems to be a little less trash around Preble Street, and when litter gets left around the Oxford Street Shelter it is cleaned up quickly.”

But homeless advocates worry that homeless people could be unfairly targeted.

“If it’s a crime, I have no issue with it,” Higgins said. “If it’s something where people are just hanging out, sitting or walking, then that’s bull.”

Higgins thinks police should be devoting resources to other initiatives. “I think they should be concentrating on putting police undercover and finding the drug dealers who are targeting the homeless and arrest them. I think that would be a better use of their time,” he said.

The increased enforcement is having a ripple effect in the jails and courts, since the vast majority of the people arrested in Bayside do not have enough money to post bail, so they must sit in jail until they can appear in court.

The city’s effort is adding to the number of people being transported from the jail to the courtroom, according to Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Ackerman, who toured the neighborhood last fall to see the issues firsthand.

“We have certainly seen an increase,” Ackerman said. “I know the county jail has certainly felt the impact.”

Neither Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce nor Lt. Scott Jordan, who oversees in-take at the jail, returned messages seeking comment Friday.

According to information provided by the DA’s office, the city’s new approach, which began Aug. 26, has resulted in a 68 percent increase in the number of people who appear in court after being arrested in Bayside. From Aug. 25 to Sept. 10, 27 people arrested in Bayside appeared in court, compared to the 16 people arrested in the 16-day period leading up to that.

So far, prosecutors have been able to keep pace, Ackerman said.

“If we’re having the desired effect, we will do whatever we need to do to make sure Bayside gets better and the neighborhood gets better for the people who live there,” she said. “If that means we have to work harder, then that’s what we’ll do.”

 

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