MANCHESTER, NH — Two downtown foot patrol officers will be added to increase police visibility and safety for patrons and business owners, starting April 12.
The move is part of a strategy to deter the persistent problem of vagrancy and panhandling, said Chief Nick Willard.
“We did something like this last fall as a way of addressing downtown issues, as some of the downtown residents were concerned about aggressive panhandlers, so we put two officers walking the beat for about a month, and it worked very well,” Willard said.
The conversation around permanently beefing up police patrols was recently raised by Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines, following a forum for business owners held March 7 during which many said they believed more police patrolling on foot would elevate public confidence in downtown safety. Baines brought those concerns to the police department’s top brass.
“I have to commend Chief Willard and Assistant Chief Capano for their response. We met and talked about the concerns raised at the downtown meeting, and a few short weeks later, the Chief has committed extra officers to walking the beat downtown,” Baines said on Tuesday. “It’s a testament to everybody who showed up to have their voices heard. In less than a month action is being taken that’s significant, and addresses one of the major concerns of people working, living and doing business in the downtown.”
Foot patrol officers will be on duty Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7 to 11 p.m. beginning next week.
Willard says he’s already seeing an increase in vagrants in the downtown area with the seasonal transition to spring.
“There’s already a proliferation of aggressive panhandling. Our officers had to remove some people from a vestibule where an ATM was located, and some of these individuals are blocking parking meters. If someone goes downtown and wants to pay for parking they shouldn’t be accosted by a panhandler,” Willard says.
The foot patrol officers will be paid using available JAG (Justice Assistance Grant) money, Willard says. It’s the same grant he has used to initiate a police “bar car” patrol on those same nights when he took over as chief of police. Incorporating the additional foot patrols into the budget is something he will assess moving forward. Once school is over, resource officers will also join the downtown patrol, as they do each year, which will result in about seven officers at any given time on patrol.
As discussed at the March 7 meeting, there is only so much police can do — and it is a fine legal line to walk — when it comes to making sure people who are begging for money are not encroaching on private property, or that officers do not overstep the boundaries of an individual’s civil rights. In December the city was found to be in violation of a panhandler’s Constitutional right to free speech based on a 2015 case involving Theresa Petrello, which cost the city $89,000.
How best to address panhandling and those who loiter on public property in such a way that it deters customers has become a law enforcement issue. Willard would like to see another solution.
“For many individuals unfortunately, it’s truly a way of life, but as long as people don’t heed my warning or my call to not give these people money — if you don’t give them money they’re not going to be begging,” Willard says.
“I sometimes feel like police are the only ones doing homeless outreach,” Willard says. “It’s a social issue the community seems to want law enforcement to handle. I don’t see any innovative approach coming from social services. In fact, I just drove down Elm Street and I saw six people sitting in blankets. They’re easy to find. My officers can tell someone about what services are available. We hand them cards with the services listed on them, and we find those cards tossed into the streets.”
Willard says people in need don’t want to hear from law enforcement.
“There should be agencies out there working for the betterment of our community with some sort of relevant outreach. I understand there are churches bringing coffee to people, and that’s great, but all they’re doing is enabling them; giving them a hand out, not a hand up,” Willard says.
“Our community demands police deal with it, but it’s frustrating for a police chief that the most loud and frequent complaint I get is about a social condition that isn’t necessarily a law enforcement issue. If they are intimidating people for money, that’s a different story. But if you have six people lined up on sidewalk with blankets and pillows, I have to ask where is our mental health apparatus, doing community outreach, asking ‘how are you, what can we do for you,’ asking if they’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, and getting them the help they need,” Willard says. “There’s none of that going on that I’ve seen, and I don’t know where I can find that kind of help. I think the city needs to work on addressing the social condition of vagrancy and homelessness.”
Baines said it’s an uncomfortable reality that the city must face head on.
“This began when I made a statement at an aldermanic meeting about some of my concerns about the future of downtown and public safety. At first the Chief was put off by what I said. We definitely did not see eye to eye off the bat. But then he reached out to me, and we had a great conversation,” Baines said. “These are not political issues. These are issues that require all of us to work together. Maybe it’s a new process that will take getting used to, where people come out to speak in force and then we tackle those concerns, one by one. In this case, it’s certainly a win for the power of what a collective voice can do.”
Willard agrees that the outcome is a positive step forward, and that more collaboration is needed.
“It’s very important for me to respond to an alderman because he represents his constituents, and his constituents are my constituents,” Willard says. “It was a great conversation, and I do take great pride in our city. I want the message to be that we’re safe and we’re a great community. We have challenges, like every community, but the messaging has to be that we’re going to work as a community to have a wonderful downtown.”