No simple solutions for downtown loitering

Sep 11, 2019 by

Published September 11, 2019

By MARK SARDELLA

WAKEFIELD — The ongoing issue of individuals loitering downtown, often in groups and sometimes drinking and panhandling, has resulted is numerous complaints to police. At this week’s Town Council meeting on the Common, representatives of the Police Department outlined the types of approaches they use to assist individuals in need.

Also discussed were a couple of measures that might be employed to improve the downtown atmosphere for both the public and business owners, such as banning the sale of nip bottles of alcohol and reconfiguring benches to make gathering in groups less attractive.

Police Chief Steven Skory was joined by Deputy Police Chief Craig Calabrese, Family Resource Officer Amy Rando and clinician Jennifer Waczkowski, who works closely with officers when dealing with individuals struggling with mental health, substance abuse and other issues.

“The Wakefield Police Department is absolutely committed to protecting the constitutional and civil rights of all individuals in our community,” Skory said. “Stereotyping and bias-based profiling is illegal, ineffective and counterproductive and will not happen here in Wakefield.”

Skory said that in the past year, the town has seen an increase in the number of homeless individuals. Others seen hanging around in the downtown area are residents of local group homes or rooming houses. Some of the complaints involve public drinking and panhandling in the downtown, as well as gathering on the benches and exhibiting disruptive and harassing behavior.

“But sadly,” Skory said “most of the complaints are about their mere presence.”

He said that many individuals are “service resistant. To some, homelessness is a lifestyle choice.”

Skory said that the Police Department has tried to take a “humanistic approach” when dealing with these individuals, adding that making arrests is often not an effective response. The best response, he said, is a longterm, multifaceted approach.

“Anyone committing a serious crime will be held accountable,” Skory said, “but arrests for minor offenses should be a last resort. Treatment, counseling and other services are far more effective.”

Calabrese outlined some of the forms that approach has taken.

“Since 2012, we have been bringing providers together quarterly to discuss best practices and best treatment options for those in need,” he said. “We were one of the first grant-funded crisis intervention team/co-responder police models by the Department of Mental Health, and we have had numerous (police) departments seek our input over the years as they looked to begin these types of programs in their communities. This is an area that we have been leaders, not followers, and it is something that has woven itself into the fabric of our department. I believe that is due to the fact that these issues require a high level of patience, care and compassion, which is an area that all of our officers excel at.”

Calabrese said that WPD and their partner agencies were moving toward a new monthly meeting schedule to discuss high-risk cases.

“These are not simple cases with simple answers that may be solved in a few meetings,” Calabrese said. “For many, these have been long term or even life-long situations. Our clinician has had successful cases that have taken months, and sometimes years, of persistence. But as long as we are able to know their faces, their names and the best means of communication for each individual, the opportunity will be there.”

Waczkowski talked about some of the ways that she has worked as a clinician partner with WPD for the past seven years.

She said that she works closely with all of the officers to de-escalate crises, help find outpatient services and inpatient hospitals for psychiatric issues, coordinate transfers to detox facilities and help with referrals to Mystic Valley Elder Services, the Department of Mental Health and the PATH program for homeless individuals.

Family Services Officer Amy Rando talked about some of the work that she had done, including getting help for one man who was in danger of losing his home due to financial difficulties. She helped him find cheaper health insurance, reduce his mortgage payment and obtain other community support to stay in his home.

She said that she has driven individuals to detox and helped others find shelter. She goes through the call logs for every shift and contacts individuals who may need services.

“We deal with a number of complex issues that go well beyond traditional policing,” Skory said.

Still, Skory added, the Police Department could use some help. He suggested a ban on nip bottles of alcohol as well as reconfiguring the downtown benches to make gathering in groups less attractive.

Skory said that the nip ban was implemented in Chelsea and that community saw a marked decrease in alcohol-related calls as well as less littering.

Town Councilor Ann Santos called Waczkowski and Rando “unsung heroes.” She said that she would support Skory’s suggestions with regard to the benches and banning nip bottles.

Town Counsel Thomas Mullen said that a bylaw banning nips in Wakefield would have to be approved by the Attorney General. Another approach might be through Board of Health regulations or by means of the Town Council’s liquor licensing process.

Councilor Mehreen Butt said that Wakefield PD is a “statewide example” of the best ways to handle these issues and pointed out that Waczkowski has won awards for her work. Butt noted that Waczkowski is currently only working part-time for Wakefield and suggested that the town should consider the possibility of making her position full-time.

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