AUGUSTA — Fears that transient troublemakers are scaring families, businesses, customers, and lenders away from the city’s downtown have business owners and others pleading for more patrols and enforcement from city police.

City councilors agreed and said the city must crack down on illegal activities before the downtown that many have worked hard the last several years to revitalize will gain a reputation as being unsafe.

One councilor shared about a heated exchange with a man well-known to downtown business owners for his bad behavior which has included opening the doors of occupied cars and demanding money and, if that isn’t provided, verbally lashing out at the people in them.

“I feel like we’ve passed the tipping point downtown because of the problems with the unhoused,” said Ward 2 City Councilor Kevin Judkins. “It’s an unsafe environment. I’ve had lots of folks come up to me and say they won’t come down there with families anymore. Parents are worried about kids getting hurt, running into needles. Clearly, it’s at a point we need to do something. Basically, the only way to get through this is to police our way through this.”

The owner of Wrapped Up Coffee House & Kitchen in downtown Augusta says while there is a small transient population causing trouble, it is not the majority of homeless people. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Judkins and Ryan Hill, owner of Wrapped Up Coffee House, said that before Thursday’s meeting, they were approached in the parking lot at City Center by a man well known for malicious behavior. They said Hill invited him to the meeting but the man declined and, Judkins said, within moments he became hostile, swearing and insulting them. Judkins, a real estate broker, said he heard from a client buying a building in downtown Augusta that a local lender advised against buying it, due to the problems downtown.

Hill said some police officers have indicated that one reason people who are homeless don’t get charged for committing crimes such as disorderly conduct is protocol issued by the Office of the Maine Attorney General regarding how police officers should respond to certain relatively minor crimes if committed by someone homeless.


Since a new state law took effect in 2022, law enforcement agencies in Maine are required to follow a new protocol established by the AG’s office that guides their interactions with people who are homeless and accused of minor crimes, such as drinking in public, substance use, or criminal trespass. Instead of arresting or charging them, authorities are directed to first try to connect them with service providers who may be able to help instead of sending them into the criminal justice system.

Hill said some police said due to that protocol the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office won’t prosecute such crimes.

Both Kevin Lully, Augusta’s interim police chief, and Tyler LeClair, an assistant district attorney, said that’s not true. Lully said he would communicate to officers, immediately, that they should file charges against people when they commit a crime and victims are willing to press charges. He noted the protocol doesn’t prevent officers from charging unhoused people, just to offer them a chance to take advantage of services to get help, first, to seek to divert them from the criminal justice system. Then, if they repeat the offense, they can be charged, like anyone else.

LeClair, an Augusta resident, said there may have been lingering misunderstanding from the pandemic. The district attorney’s office had so many cases backing up due to court closures at the time that several cases involving lesser charges were dismissed. But he said the DA’s office is caught up now and will prosecute such cases.

A vehicle heads north Friday along Water Street in front of the Olde Federal Building in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I care deeply about this community. I walk downtown pretty much every day so I see exactly what you guys are talking about, I see the needles on Bridge Street, and want you to know we’re doing everything we can,” LeClair said. “If a crime occurs and we can prove it, we’ll prosecute it.”

Hill said since a meeting he held with police and the district attorney, he has seen a change in the demeanor of police officers responding to calls involving people who are homeless, that police have been more aggressive.


He said bad behavior has included a man masturbating inside his shop while a young woman was working there, trying to steal the tip jar, public urination and defecation, and worse. He said the problem is not the majority of local people who are homeless, some of whom he said are friends and customers. Rather, he said it is a small transient population who repeatedly act out, and need harsher consequences for when they do.

“We’re not talking about Joe on the corner panhandling. We like Joe on the corner panhandling because when he gets enough money he comes in and buys coffee from me,” Hill said. “It’s the guy that passes Joe Schmoe and goes into the parking lot and starts keying vehicles and trying to grab attention or is too intoxicated to make good decisions, that’s when an officer should step in. We need a police presence.”

Judkins said the city, which last year boosted overtime funds for dedicated downtown police patrols, should provide enough funding to have police on a downtown beat from early morning until sundown, as well as patrol cars passing through the area on the half-hour.

Victoria Abbott, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries, which has a soup kitchen downtown, and who also is president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance’s board of directors, said the city should budget funding for more of a police presence downtown.

Wrapped Up Coffee House & Kitchen owner Ryan Hill is seen Friday outside his downtown Augusta shop. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Downtown is an economic driver for the city and we have a lot of businesses that are seeing a decline due to the heavier solicitation, due to people being followed,” she said. “When restaurants close, their staff are being followed on Water Street. It’s not really a safe place after 10 (p.m.). Maybe after 4, I don’t know. I think it’s really a giant issue in the city of Augusta right now and I’d like you all to open your eyes and come down and see.”

Councilors agreed, for starters, to consider adopting an ordinance against “unreasonable solicitation,” based on an ordinance Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind found the city of Bangor has in place. Councilors plan to hold the first of two required readings on that new ordinance next week.

Lind said the ordinance would make it illegal for someone to engage in unreasonable solicitation, which the Bangor ordinance describes as blocking or impeding the path of the person being asked for money or other donations, or following, threatening with physical harm by words or gestures, or touching someone being solicited.

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