PORTLAND, Maine — Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his department will ask the state attorney general to decide whether an alleged altercation in the Congress Square area on Aug. 11 rises to the level of a civil rights violation.
City resident James Melanson tried to file the criminal complaint that day but said the responding police officer was not inclined to pursue the matter.
“My concern is you hear a lot about these incidents and people are afraid. I think this is the reason people are afraid to call police,” Melanson said, echoing remarks he had made on his Facebook page the day after the incident in the Starbucks at 594 Congress St.
On Aug. 13, police Detective Kelly Gorham did take a statement from Melanson about the Aug. 11 argument and altercation with a tourist from Maryland that allegedly began when Melanson said he refused to allow the other man to take an empty chair from his table at around 4 p.m.
Starbucks was crowded, but Melanson said he was waiting for someone to join him and was saving the seat. As the man and his family left, Melanson said, they exchanged words again.
Melanson said the man called him a homophobic slur when he reached the door and Melanson got up to confront him as soon as he heard it. In the course of the confrontation, Melanson said he was punched in the chest and face. He said the man also used the slur a second time.
“It happened so quickly, it was so bizarre,” he said.
The unidentified man admitted using a homophobic slur once at the door, but said he did so before Melanson got up and confronted him. If that’s accurate, his words are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Sauschuck said.
“I certainly understand (Melanson’s) passionate response. It was an unfortunate scenario that should not have happened,” Sauschuck said.
When alerted to Melanson’s accounts of the incident and his complaints specifically against Officer Henry Johnson about an unsympathetic response during an hourlong investigation on Aug. 11, Sauschuck said he asked Assistant Chief Vern Malloch to follow up and have Melanson interviewed again.
The Aug. 11 Police Department activity log shows Johnson responded to an assault complaint at 4:33 p.m. and spent an hour at the scene. Sauschuck initially said he would consider releasing Johnson’s narrative summary of the incident but decided not to because it would be included in the report sent to the attorney general.
Melanson said he understands a criminal complaint would lead to misdemeanor charges but was troubled by Johnson’s apparent disregard for his side of the story.
“(The other man) assaulted me,” Melanson said. “I would like to do something,”
Melanson said the officer told him he could face a disorderly conduct charge for confronting the man.
“How am I responsible? He assaulted me,” Melanson said.
Sauschuck contrasted the use of the slurs in the Aug. 11 confrontation to the April 19 attack of a black man in an alley off Congress Street where two brothers, Charles Bean Jr. and Benjamin Bean, were charged with civil rights violations.
In that case, the brothers targeted the victim, who was watching them allegedly fight someone else, then used racial slurs as they allegedly beat him.
Melanson said he would still like a chance to express his perspective to Johnson on the incident but appreciated the reconsideration by police.
“It feels like a relief. It was nice to be heard. It was good to have somebody write it all down,” he said.