Pedestrians walk Friday on the sidewalks along Water Street in downtown Augusta. Merchants have asked police to have an increased presence in the downtown to deter bad behaviors.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — City police are expected to have more of a presence downtown after numerous merchants said crime and other bad behaviors have become so rampant there that it is scaring away customers and destroying the positive image they worked hard to create.

Several business owners said a small but growing group of homeless people are responsible for some of the things that are threatening their livelihoods and making people feel unsafe, including drug use, leaving trash and needles on the streets and in storefronts, harassing passersby, passing out on sidewalks and increased thievery. But, they noted the troublemakers appear to be newcomers and said the city should continue to help people who are homeless, the majority of whom are not problematic and have said they, too, fear the people causing the problems.

Dustin Tribou, owner of Saylorink Tattoo at 261 Water St., said this is the first time he’s felt unsafe on Water Street, downtown. He said his kids frequent the shop but have become fearful due to vandalism, trash and needles left in his entryway as well as encounters they have had with strangers.

Clark Phinney, an owner of Amour: A Curated World Market on Water Street in Augusta, says a visible police presence downtown would help deter panhandling, drug use and other bad behavior that have been on the rise recently. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

His wife, Allison Tribou, said their two daughters know just about every business owner downtown so they should feel and be safe, but after multiple incidents, they don’t feel safe anymore. She said an intoxicated man harassed one of her young daughters while the family was at a downtown restaurant and was later seen vomiting on the street, and another man followed them closely on the Rail Trail, stopping when they stopped, and frightening them into not going on their planned walk. She said she volunteers at the Bread of Life soup kitchen and has met a lot of sweet and kind people who eat there. She said a local homeless person she is friendly with told her recently, “This city is getting crazy, I got beat up last night, it’s not cool.”

“So even the unhoused population is disturbed by the unhoused population and the people being shuttled into this city and taking it over,” Allison Tribou told city councilors during a lengthy discussion of the problem Thursday.

City officials agreed to use overtime to pay existing city police officers to work dedicated foot patrol shifts downtown, for up to 40 hours a week if enough officers volunteer to fill the shifts on overtime. While the measure would address the problem on a temporary basis, officials warned it’s not a long-term solution. And they said in the current tight labor market, the city is already trying to fill three vacant patrol positions, for which it has only one applicant.


Police Chief Jared Mills said the downtown is part of one of four districts, each with at least one patrol officer on duty within it, but those patrol officers are kept busy responding to numerous calls, not proactively patrolling the downtown and serving as a deterrent.

“We handle 165 to 260 calls for service in a 24-hour period,” Mills said. “The average officer takes between 10 and 22 written reports in an 11- to 12-hour shift. Most of their time is reactive, not proactive. And by proactive I mean walking around downtown.”

Clark Phinney, who with his wife owns Amour: A Curated World Market on downtown Water Street, said a visible police presence would be a deterrent to bad actors who otherwise might not face any consequences for their actions. He said not taking action now could result in the city’s image being harmed, perhaps even returning it to its previous nickname of “Disgusta.”

“We are at a tipping point now where we’ve done so much to attract businesses, to revitalize downtown, fill apartments, get traffic going, that it breaks my heart when I hear a customer come in to a store, or the coffeehouse, or the diner, or any one of us, and make a comment about the neighborhood,” Phinney said. “And we don’t have a good answer to give them back, other than it’s a work in progress. When they express concern about being panhandled, trash, needles, drug paraphernalia, seeing people passed out on the sidewalk, we need to do something before our image begins to slip back.”

David Hopkins, an owner of The Chocolate Shoppe at Merkaba Sol on Water Street in downtown Augusta, says a lack of consequences is driving crime and bad behavior among a group of people who recently arrived in the city. He says he did not experience similar issues during the 10 years his shop was next to the Bread of Life soup kitchen. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Mills said the department could probably fund 40-hours-a-week of overtime shifts for dedicated downtown patrols from now until the end of October, at a cost of about $37,000, from savings from not having to pay officers for the three vacant positions the department has been unable to fill. But he said the department doesn’t have the funding to staff a dedicated, full-time officer in the downtown beyond that.

Some councilors said the city should find a way to have more downtown patrols on a longer-term basis, through the rest of the year, and find a way to come up with the roughly $140,000 that could cost. Some councilors suggested seeing if any of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds could be used, which City Manager Susan Robertson said she would explore.

Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said the city should implement the plan to increase police presence downtown immediately and task Robertson with coming up with a way to fund that at least for the rest of the year.

David Hopkins, owner, with his partner Bishop McKechnie, of Merkaba Sol shop, which has been downtown for 15 years, said their business shared a wall with the adjacent Bread of Life soup kitchen for 10 years, before their shop moved to a new location elsewhere on Water Street. “And we didn’t have any issue at all. The people that ran Bread of Life at the time dealt with it and if anybody was out of control they made them accountable for what they did. We were there next to them for 10 years, things were great.”

However, he said now there is “an underlayer, a new group of people, that have come in, and they’re getting away with everything because there’s no consequences at all.”

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