Community activists and residents accused police on Wednesday of targeting the city’s less fortunate in a crackdown on loitering in Middletown’s North End.
One after another resident stood up at the 's monthly meeting Wednesday evening at the and shared their thoughts about a two-month period that, according to Ron Krom, executive director of , has been a “new era” in North End policing.
Krom's organization runs a soup kitchen, food pantry and offers services to the poor and homeless in greater Middletown.
Police were quick to defend their actions. Lt. Paul Maturo came to the meeting with two Middletown Police officers, who never spoke, saying he was a lifelong resident of Middletown and 22-year officer who grew up in the North End on Bridge Street.
“I can kind of understand what going on here more than people may think, because I grew up here,” Maturo said, after a couple of residents spoke about loitering in the North End.
A ticket for loitering is $90. It's uncertain how many loitering tickets Middletown Police have been issued in the last two months in the North End.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to see what all of my officers do, nor am I in here to tell you that in every instance that they are 100 percent right. On the flip side, I don’t think that everyone else out here is 100 percent right either,” Maturo said.
He denied that targeting specific economic or racial classes “has come from the administration or anyone inside the building or City Hall or anything like that.”
Maturo then named two North End businesses that have sent letters or, “have specific requests that people not loiter in front of their business,” including The Community Health Center, “one of the bigger ones,” Maturo said; Wharfside Commons apartments, The Buttonwood Tree and 8 Liberty Commons.
Lydia Brewster, former executive director of NEAT and assistant director of community services for St. Vincent De Paul, which operates the soup kitchen, stood up and addressed what she termed a “double standard.”
“I feel as though there is a difference here on how groups of people are being measured in terms of their social context. .. we don’t want to see people who are just standing around and socializing targeted,” Brewter said, referencing soup kitchen patrons who may talk outside on a Main Street sidewalk after a meal.
She referencing the 15 or more people who wait in line an hour every Sunday morning at O’Rourke’s Diner, just down the street from The Buttonwood and the soup kitchen, who never are charged with loitering by police.
“We would rather see you around or somehow call into order people who are actually committing crimes,” she said, which was met with applause around the room.
Anywhere in the South End, Brewster said, a small group of people talking on the sidewalk after dinner in a Main Street restaurant would be considered evidence of a “vibrant community.”
“It’s a sign of a healthy neighborhood,” Brewster said, “that people have social conversation.”
Bobbye Knoll is the NEAT community organizer. “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 [across the street];” both of which were replaced May 5 by the new Community Health Center at 675 Main Street.
Ron Krom, executive director of St. Vincent DePaul Place waited a while to speak. His office is several floors up from Main Street above the soup kitchen and has a window view of the street.
“I came back from a vacation on the 2nd of June to bullhorns in the street telling people to move along … for three or four days … not people congregating, just people being on the sidewalk,” he told Maturo, referring to police officers.
“They’re not targeting people who are congregating, blocking the sidewalk,” Krom said. “It is specifically people who just happen to be there at a particular time when a particular officer decides, ‘OK,’ these people shouldn’t be here.’”
Krom said he was standing in front of The Buttonwood talking and saw a woman in front of the soup kitchen window who was approached by officers and asked to leave. She was given a ticket, Krom said, while yelling to the police that were arresting her, "what about them?"
"And there was four of us professionals standing right there 20 feet away,” he said.
NEAT executive director Izzi Greenberg said after the meeting that residents were asking a very basic question that was never answered. “How do we know if we are loitering?”
“It was pretty unsatisfying for people who attended and wanted to know the guidelines,” Greenberg said. “We really need to have an open dialogue with the police department.”
She said both Police Chief William McKenna and Mayor Dan Drew were invited to Wednesday's meeting but had other commitments.
Greenberg sees police giving 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?”
“The issue is this a neighborhood. People are not being ticketed to the best of my knowledge anywhere else on Main Street for loitering,” Knoll says. “This is basically their front porch," she said, referring to the street.