By Terry Rogers
Several business owners in downtown Milford have expressed concerns about loitering in downtown parks. One business owner, Angela Dorey of Dorey Insurance, installed video cameras behind her place of business after discovering urine and human feces near her back door.
“I have many videos of people using the alcove behind my building as a bathroom,” Ms. Dorey said. “I’ve turned them over to the police, but they say they have to catch them in the act. By the time I call them, these guys are gone and there is nothing the police can do. I cannot detain them until the police arrive. It is more than a safety issue, it is unsanitary as well.” Ms. Dorey installed a handwritten sign that says “Smile You’re on Camera” above her door and she says since that sign has been in place, the video camera, which is motion-activated, has remained silent.
Ms. Dorey said that other business owners have expressed to her that they, too, are having issues with people who are spending the day in the park. She said that the owner of a gallery downtown contacted her after seeing videos that Ms. Dorey posted on social media, expressing that she had customers who had been frightened by some of the loiterers. The other business owner also informed Ms. Dorey that one of the men had exposed himself to a customer and her daughter.
Melissa Pingue, Chairperson of the Milford Riverwalk Farmers Market said that they have not had problems with people who were loitering in the park recently, but they have experienced several small thefts from vendors in previous years. She said that since the market has grown, many of the loiterers kept away from the area since there were so many people visiting the market.
“My belief is that when the park is full of people, shopping and socializing, it keeps the undesirables away, or at least pushes them back away from the park,” Ms. Pingue said. “I have noticed that once the vendors start packing up and leaving that certain persons make their way into the park and sit on the benches watching the clean-up process.” Ms. Pingue said that adding a public restroom in the parks may address the public urination problem. She also said that many vendors and customers had complained due to the lack of public restrooms in downtown Milford.
Ms. Pingue felt that adding a public restroom would encourage families to come to the park for picnic lunches and to relax by the river and would make the parks more family-friendly. Ms. Dorey agreed with Ms. Pingue and said she was even willing to pay for a portable toilet in the park herself if it would eliminate the problem behind her office.
Lieutenant Ed Huey of the Milford Police Department said that they police were aware of the problem. He said that they had directed both full-time and seasonal officers to conduct foot patrol through the park areas and have done spot checks to ensure that it is being accomplished. In addition, Lt. Huey said that the police were using street cameras to monitor activities in the park whereby a dispatcher can direct officers to the scene should they observe suspicious activity. Lt. Huey said that it was extremely difficult to address the problem in the parks.
“Our law concerning loitering was written in 1953,” Lt. Huey said. “It somewhat mirrored the common place thought at the time to move people along who were just ‘hanging out with no apparent purpose’ or for purposes of soliciting prostitution, begging or blocking sidewalks and public egress.” Lt. Huey said that a law written in Chicago in 1991 to address what was thought to be people congregating for purposes of recruiting people to join street gangs, but that law was challenged in 1999 with both the Illinois and the United States Supreme Courts determining that the law was unconstitutional as it was unfairly vague and because it could be construed as forbidding people from assembling peacefully, a right given under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
According to Lt. Huey, Milford’s law was rewritten somewhat to attempt to address the issue. However, changes to the law make it very difficult to deal with loitering in the parks. Lt. Huey said that the law requires police officers to have probable cause to believe the individual has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. The law also requires an officer to afford the individual the chance to dispel any alarm, request identification and asking the individual to explain their presence or conduct.
Some downtown merchants believe that a liquor store located on the corner directly across from Bicentennial Park, may be part of the issue as many of those loitering in the park frequent the store regularly. Ms. Dorey, who is also the President of the Greater Milford Chamber of Commerce and the chairperson of the Riverwalk Freedom Festival, said that she personally found multiple miniature liquor bottles lying in the grass at the entrance to the park, despite there being a no alcohol ordinance for all city parks.
“The location of the park is a convenient meeting place between those that live on the north side of the river to meet up with those that reside on the south side of the river,” Lt. Huey said. “It is also in close proximity to convenient stops to get food, visit social services, go to the pharmacy, play shuffleboard, and, yes, obtain alcoholic beverages. I don’t feel that the liquor store in close proximity to the park is the main attraction as there are also three other places in close proximity that serve alcoholic beverages nearby.” In addition, Lt. Huey said that most of the incidences behind Ms. Dorey’s building occurred at night, although there were two during the day. Because the parks are closed after dark, he felt that some of those who were engaging in public urination and defecation behind her office were not necessarily park loiterers.
Lt. Huey said that after Ms. Dorey’s complaints, Milford Police Department had since learned that other businesses downtown had suffered similar problems. He said that it did not appear that the other businesses had filed complaints. Ms. Dorey said that her landlord, Patrick Scanlon, an attorney with an office next door, had not experienced the issue in the past. Ms. Dorey felt that since there was a small church in her office prior to her moving in, they may not have had as much of an issue since the majority of the congregation used the front doors while she and her staff park behind the building and must enter through the back.
When asked about people in the parks approaching other park visitors for money, Lt. Huey said that there were ordinances against panhandling in the city, but that the majority of calls they received concerned local convenience store parking lots. He said that few people considered contacting the police when they were approached for money and that the first reaction was normally to lend a hand to someone who was down on their luck.
“I think the best solution for this problem is a town meeting between City Council, the police and the business owners,” Ms. Dorey said. “I am a little concerned about retaliation against my business because I spoke out against this problem, but I can’t keep dealing with some of the things that are happening behind my office. Since I have been reporting to the police, however, I have seen officers behind the building on occasion checking the area.”