PORTLAND — Trish McAllister knows a few of the things that drive Portlanders nuts:

Cleaning fresh graffiti off a wall, only to have a neighboring business leave graffiti untouched for weeks.

Walking past ratty old couches left on the sidewalk to mold and rot and gather sympathy debris.

Having neighbors who party incessantly, fight often and get frequent visits from the police.

McAllister lives in Portland and feels passionately about those issues. She’s also in a position to do something about them.

McAllister is the city’s neighborhood prosecutor, responsible for addressing those quality-of-life issues that don’t rise to the level of criminal prosecution but can have a huge bearing on a neighborhood’s peace of mind.

“These are the issues that actually affect how safe people feel in their neighborhoods,” she said. “When a neighborhood looks downtrodden and looks like people don’t care about it, it tends to draw criminal activity.”

McAllister has been on the job for nine months. She started out part time but was made full time in the fall.

The position is funded with a $60,000 grant, so job security isn’t one of its strong points.

McAllister prosecutes cases that are not criminal, stemming from offenses like public urination, loitering, littering and panhandling. She also works to get business owners and landlords to look after their properties and their customers or tenants.

McAllister, 47, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1986, worked in marine enforcement for 10 years and later served as code enforcement officer in Sebago.

She earned her law degree from the University of Maine School of Law in 2004 and worked as a land-use attorney before being hired in April as Portland’s first community justice advocate.

Being small didn’t stop her from playing basketball throughout high school and college, and she doesn’t mind going toe-to-toe with an obstinate landlord or business owner.

“Enforcement is how you get stuff accomplished,” she said. “A majority of property owners are very responsible, but there are a few who aren’t, and we need to hold them accountable.”

Her preference is not to be confrontational.

One of her latest projects is pushing for a graffiti ordinance, modeled after one in South Portland, where graffiti diminished noticeably after the ordinance was passed in 2007.

“Businesses are getting tagged like crazy. The broken-window theory is alive and well here in Portland,” she said, referring to the police axiom that vandalism, left unrepaired, begets more vandalism and other crime.

As important as a graffiti ordinance would be, she said, enforcement may go no further than handing a property owner a bucket of cleaning supplies, like the one beside her desk, and asking him to do his part.

McAllister is working to have the city create a central graffiti hotline so residents and business owners can report graffiti as soon as they see it and the city can get property owners — including the city itself — to clean it up.

Public property gets tagged as often as anyone’s, and the city must be just as responsive in cleaning it, she said.

McAllister has won fans for her work and the way she has approached what can be sticky neighborhood issues.

“She displays a real sensitivity to the concerns of residents and businesses,” said City Councilor Ed Suslovic. “She’s a good listener.”

Her ideas have generated support as well as opposition, he said. “That’s going to happen when you’re trying to solve difficult problems.”

Landlords whose buildings have been tagged with graffiti are crime victims, and having the city force them to clean it up within a couple of days makes them feel twice as victimized, he said.

The council’s Public Safety Committee plans to consider some of McAllister’s ordinance initiatives in the coming months, including an ordinance to require landlords to clean up trash dumped by their tenants.

McAllister also is exploring whether to seek amendments to Portland’s disorderly-house ordinance, so it kicks in sooner.

Currently, if a building generates at least eight calls for police within a month, the city can act to compel the landlord to address the problem. If the landlord doesn’t comply, the city can take them to court.

This month, the city won a settlement with the owner of 255/259 Oxford St. that requires the landlord to provide security and develop a system for screening tenants. If a tenant receives general assistance, part of his or her rent check must be given to the city to pay for counseling on how to be a good tenant.

The city has a dozen or so “hot spots” that generate a handful of police calls each month. Working with landlords sooner, without having to wait for eight calls in a month, would reduce problems in neighborhoods, she said.

Residents near 259 Oxford St. endured criminal and intimidating behavior for years before the landlord was held accountable, said Alex Landry, chairman of the Bayside Neighborhood Association.

“It had very seriously impacted that particular part of the neighborhood. I would say it was a magnet in this area of the city for criminal activity,” he said.

Landry praised McAllister for getting results and being straightforward in answering residents’ questions.

Police Chief James Craig, who created the position, said McAllister has made it work superbly.

Her work with senior lead officers and community policing coordinators helps reduce more-serious crime, Craig said.

“When you take care of the small things, the neighborhood begins to take on this appearance of being safe and it doesn’t attract criminals or breed enhanced crime,” Craig said. “That’s a real core of community policing.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]


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