MANCHESTER — Police Chief David Mara Thursday morning told a room full of downtown business owners and managers that his summer initiative to improve the perception and the reality of downtown as a safe and vibrant destination is already underway.
It includes taking back the parks, removing benches in Veterans Park that forced people to walk a gauntlet; performing security surveys and conducting safety clinics for businesses; an increased police presence when bars and clubs close, and trying to steer those with alcohol and/or mental health issues toward assistance.
Complicating the effort that will be in full swing by mid-June, though, is a new, younger population that is often not homeless, Mara said, but eats at the shelter, sometimes sleeps there, and panhandles for drug money, increasingly for heroin.
“It’s driving our crime problem,” said Mara, who noted that extends beyond Manchester. But the city is his primary concern. “We’re going to try to make downtown a more exciting and inviting downtown,” he said.
To do that, though, he said he needs the help of business owners, merchants and downtown workers. “I want us to work together,” he said. He urged people to call police about issues so they can be addressed. “I don’t want things to fester,” he said.
After the chief discussed how he was seeking to have issues addressed quickly, the audience of about 75 at the Chamber of Commerce, 66 Hanover St., was ready with questions and comments.
“What can we do to help,” asked attorney James Normand, whose law office at 15 High St. is in a peak drug dealing area. Capt. Shawn Fournier suggested keeping track of license plate numbers and noting what is happening, including scenarios involving when a car pulls up, someone gets out and goes into a building, returns a few minutes later and gets into the vehicle, which drives away. “We’re scooping them up,” said Fournier. “If you’ve seen that plate a couple of times,” he said let police know about it.
Mara said transient hotels are prime sites for drug dealing. The downtown offers cheap housing, no need for a vehicle, and lots of activities.
“It draws good people,” said Mara, but he added it also is a good place for others to get money to fuel their addiction.
Charlie Sherman, executive director of New Horizons, the soup kitchen and shelter at 199 Manchester St., said he’s noticed a change in who comes to the shelter to eat. About 20 percent of the clientele are what he describes as “young toughs ... trouble waiting to happen.” He said they aren’t homeless, but they come to eat for free.
Sherman said when a police officer comes in during the meal period, especially if he has a warrant or two and arrests somebody, the number of young toughs decrease for a while. “It’s a wonderful deterrent,” said Sherman.
Alex Puglisi, owner of Cafe La Reine at 915 Elm St., said some of her employees, who must walk from the Victory Garage at about 5:30 a.m. to open the restauraunt in a half-hour, get hassled. “The panhandlers make a scene. They (employees) just don’t feel safe.”
Mara said police need to be alerted about specific issues and then can try to address them.
With all the increased involvement planned in the downtown area, though, there will be times when officers will need to address major issues elsewhere, because of numbers, Mara noted.
“We are short of officers,” he said, adding that two captains, including Community Policing commander Capt. Rick Reilly, will be retiring July 1. He said now-Lt. Maureen Tessier will take over that role.
Mara said he hopes to be able to reach the full authorized complement of 227 in the new budget cycle, although he said for a city the size of Manchester: “We should have 263.”
Patrick Tufts, president and CEO of Granite United Way, said changes in the downtown population have had an impact on efforts to help. “There’s a tremendous strain on the social service agencies,” he said. When the Day Center was opened five years ago, it was serving 45 to 50 of the chronically homeless. Now, he said, that has grown to 140 to 145 a day. “Younger, tougher, addicted. But not homeless,” he said. “We have to evolve,” said Tufts.
Mara said the new initiative will have police officers who are out on the street making individual contact with people identified as having addiction and mental health issues. The officers will have cards with information on where to access help on the back.
Instead of flooding the streets with officers and moving people out in a forceful fashion, Mara said: “We are going to try to get them services.” Tufts said the statewide United Way is facing the same problems across the state. But looking at Manchester, he said: “The collaborating, in my mind, will get us to where we want to be.”Interim chamber president Michael Whitney agreed. “We have the capacity to have an impact. It is an ‘us’ issue. I think we can become a template.”
Mara promised to meet again with the downtown business members to talk about progress and issues that develop. He also brought with him and introduced Assistant Chief Nick Willard, Reilly and a number of other upper level and community police officers who will be contacts for downtown issues, as well as issues in other sections of the city.
Each community attendee received a list with community police officers, their operating areas, their community cell phones and their email addresses.