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Deering Oaks Park is an iconic part of the Portland cityscape, with more than 55 acres devoted to providing residents with a lush, beautiful place to gather and enjoy 55 acres of green public space in the heart of downtown. Being a resident of southern Maine, I’ve really enjoyed spending time at the park as it has been a great place to bring your family.
Lately, though, there has been a sinister change taking place.
I’m usually there once a week or so playing baseball in the Southern Maine Men’s Baseball League, as Dearing Oaks has a fairly well-maintained baseball diamond. When I joined the league last year, my family — including all four of my children — were eager to support me and came to my first games.
They haven’t been back since.
It was not the product on the field, admittedly mediocre, that chased away my wife and kids. Rather, they stopped coming because they did not feel safe going to games there.
Talk to locals in Portland and the surrounding towns, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Deering Oaks, like so many areas of not only Portland but many communities in Maine and across America, used to be safe, but no longer is. In the past few years, it has become overrun by homelessness, mentally unstable transients, brazenly open drug use, and violent crime. The signs of social rot and decay are increasingly prevalent.
Arriving before a game this year, I parked and was immediately approached by three men who were trying to buy drugs. The following week I got maybe five steps out of my car before someone tried to sell me drugs, and I saw that individual arrested in the distance later that night in about the fourth inning. This past Monday, there were blue lights flashing outside the dugout for an hour.
If I was foolish enough to stop by the portable facilities before the game, I would nearly always notice a dozen used needles strewn about inside, and would often be harassed for drugs going in, or coming out (or both).
But it isn’t just drug use that one needs to be concerned about these days. Late last year, a 47-year-old woman was sexually assaulted in a portable toilet in the park.
The city’s response to this noticeable deterioration seems to be either complacency, indifference, or perhaps more likely, befuddlement, unsure of what to do about it.
The police, for their part, are doing what they can, but seem only empowered to try to “move people along,” which does not stop anything from happening. It also leaves police, and citizens, feeling frustrated and powerless.
I spoke with an officer with the Portland Police Department about this, and he complained at length about the impossible situation he and his fellow officers are often put in. In the wake of the move by Portland and other communities across the country to replace some police officers with mental health professionals, those in the social services end up calling the police to intervene.
“The social worker calls and says ‘this man doesn’t seem right,’ and thinks he needs to go to the hospital,” he explained to me. “I ask him if he needs to go to the hospital, or if he feels like he wants to harm himself or others. He says no.”
And here, to the officer, is the issue. “There’s this thing called the Fourth Amendment,” he explains, “and I can’t force him to do anything.”
To this officer, there isn’t a lack of accessible services available, in fact, for a lot of people struggling there are actually many services. The problem is the willingness (or lack thereof) of people who need those services to seek or accept them. This may be why cities that have approved massive spending to tackle these problems — $1.2 billion in the case of Los Angeles alone — have only seen the problem get worse.
I spoke with the owner of a private security firm in southern Maine, who told me that he has seen a major uptick in property crimes, criminal trespassing, theft, and loitering. Public safety, overwhelmed, has become unable to handle many of the reports, forcing private security to fill the void. “It’s at the point,” he told me, “that on any given night we are moving trespassers away from one property, only to find them at another property we manage.”
Yet shuffling people from one point to another solves nothing.
Portland isn’t alone in struggling with this problem, but one thing is for certain. Making criminal prosecution anathema in favor of a supposedly compassionate alternative of permissiveness will never solve this problem.