Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part story on loitering in the North End of Middletown. The original piece, ran on Aug. 2. The second will run Thursday.
The city’s chief of police is denying reports that his officers are singling out residents in the North End with loitering citations.
In fact, Chief William McKenna says, there has been only one ticket issued in the last year for loitering in that area of Middletown.
“We did the research and we found one citation in the last year,” he says. That’s in direct contrast to what community activists and residents who spoke passionately about what they called police “targeting” of citizens on sidewalks.
"'Targeting' and 'profiling' are not good words to use in policing," the chief says.
At the Aug. 1 meeting, Bobbye Knoll, NEAT community organizer, handed out a paper with more than a dozen complaints she had received in writing. “We have 14 resident complaints of officers threatening loitering tickets or actually giving them. … Folks who use the soup kitchen, the Luis Lopez Garden, or standing outside the former Community Health Center [635 Main Street] or the CHC Dental Center [at 634 Main Street].”
“Someone is giving the wrong information here,” McKenna says.
"When I heard about this, I searched the computer system. I found one citation in the whole year," from June of 2011 to July of 2012."
At the meeting, NEAT Executive Director Izzi Greenberg questioned whether police give more weight to business owners' complaints than to individual residents passing by or stopping in the North End. “'Why do businesses have more clout?’ is really a valid question. Who don’t they want? How would they define loitering?”
A Freedom of Information request by Middletown Patch to the police department revealed only two letters had been sent to the police department on the issue, and the first never specifies loitering.
“The property manager at Wharfside Commons [apartments] is requesting increased patrol and property checks on Ferry Street,” reads the first, undated letter. “They would like to see quality-of-life issues addressed, namely trespassing, narcotic trafficking, people urinating, etc.”
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The second letter, dated July 11, from Mark Masselli, CEO/President of the , reads, “The Community Health Center requests police enforcement of the ‘No Loitering’ signs on the Community Health Center building at 634 Main Street [the former dental office].”
Additionally, McKenna says the mayor’s office never told him to be more aggressive toward people in the North End and he has never directed his officers to do so.
“People forget that I live here. I’m not going to start telling our cops to be bullies. They’ve got to be pleasant.”
“I expect officers to be visible, to be respectful on calls for service, and I expect them to be proactive,” McKenna says.
Greenberg says NEAT's role is to advocate for North End residents. "We don't want to see people who live in this neighborhood be alienated simply because of the way they look for exhibiting the same behavior on Main Street as other people do," she says.
That is absolutely not happening, according to the chief.
Anne-Marie Cannata, executive director of the , located on the ground floor of Liberty Commons, which offers supportive housing to people with chronic homelessness, mental, physical and addiction disabilities; acknowledges loitering is a complicated issue in the city.
“Basically, we have even within our own organization mixed feelings,” she says.
“We have people who live in this building who consider the sidewalk area their front porch. It’s a great place to people watch — people bring their lunches. Other people may be breaking the law but we don’t know which is which,” Cannata says.
“If you stand there every single day for eight hours, there’s a difference, if you’re hampering business and hampering the people walking by.”
an idea introduced by Fred Carroll when he ran last October for Common Council on the Realistic Balance Party ticket, pose certain problems.
A park such as the at Ferry and Main streets, owned by the city but maintained by the Community Health Center and locked after dusk and most weekends, could offer areas for folks to stop and rest, engage in conversation or enjoy watching passersby.
“There should be areas where people can sit,” Cannata says, “but there’s not a lot of shade in the garden.”
And loitering signs there and the no public drinking ordinance are sometimes violated.
“We get that many of them don’t have a yard,” McKenna says of North End residents. “We get that. I know that people live above the businesses. I know that there are blocks and blocks of families" who live on or just off Main Street," McKenna says.
And compared to 10 or even 15 years ago, downtown Middletown has become significantly safer and more pedestrian and family friendly. "When I was walking the beat, we had gangs," McKenna recalls.
His department's goal is to address real "quality of life issues," the chief says, such as narcotics dealing. "Which ultimately improves the quality of life for anyone who lives, plays and works up there."
“We are going to make changes but it doesn’t happen overnight,” he says.
Tomorrow, Middletown Patch will report on community policing.