The men who hang out on Smith Street, Alden Street and Stillwater Avenue sometimes sit, slumped, on the sidewalk.
Sometimes they lean, swaying, hoods over their heads, against the metal poles that display traffic signs.
They play dice on the sidewalk. Some argue or outright fight. Some lower their pants and urinate in the street.
A few of the men harass residents trying to navigate the sidewalks of their West Side neighborhood, shouting at them, pulling at them, or asking them for money.
Nearly all of the men who hang on the corners are drunk.
The scene repeats in other Stamford neighborhoods.
Police told members of the Board of Representatives Wednesday that in 2021 they embarked on an effort to stop the behavior. For about 18 months they worked with the city’s social services department and several nonprofit organizations that address addiction, mental illness and homelessness.
“Because of the places where (the men) find themselves, chances are that they are not going to reach out. So we brought resources to them,” Assistant Chief Silas Redd told members of the board’s Public Safety Committee. “It did not have the effect we were looking for.”
Drinking and loitering, drug dealing and robberies continued.
Then two officers on Lt. Eugene Dohmann’s squad – veterans of the New Haven Police Department – told him that Stamford needs to take a page from its sister city’s municipal code.
“In New Haven they have an ordinance that prohibits drinking alcohol on city streets like we do in Stamford, but New Haven includes beer. It’s a game-changer,” Dohmann told city representatives. “The Stamford ordinance has a hole in it – it’s not illegal to drink beer.”
The result is loitering outside liquor stores where beer is sold.
“They … drink all day. That comes with crime, garbage, public nuisance,” Dohmann said, but if the ordinance is expanded, “they will move on, and the old-timers who live at that corner house will come out and go to the store and not be harassed or robbed; and we won’t be called to Alden Street at 10 a.m. because a man who’s been drinking since 7 a.m. is passed out.”
Police, Dohmann said, have “gotten to a point where we need help to be effective in serving the community.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger, a Stamford police officer and Board of Representatives parliamentarian, drafted a rewrite of the Stamford ordinance governing alcohol consumption on city property, basing it on New Haven’s ordinance.
Dana Lee, a city attorney who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said the draft needs tweaking.
“I would like the opportunity to work with the ordinance,” Lee said. “I would recommend changing some things such as defining ‘alcoholic liquor,’ because beer and wine are not considered liquor. If left to the interpretation of a court, it might create confusion.”
Boeger said creating ordinances takes time, and spring, when more people are out and about, is nearly here.
“Under the current ordinance you can stand on a sidewalk in Stamford and drink beer to your heart’s content. Gambling, prostitution, robbery and drug activity go with that,” Boeger said. “We don’t want this to go through a lengthy process.”
City Rep. Jeff Stella, a retired New York Police Department detective and chair of the Public Safety Committee, agreed. Drinking and drug use in Lione Park in his district is “off the hook,” Stella said.
“Time is not on our side,” he told his fellow committee members. “If we … don’t start educating the people now that this is not acceptable, by summer we’ve lost the park.”
Boeger said he wants to get the proposed ordinance before the full board at its March 6 meeting. Board approval then would take the ordinance to a public hearing later in the month, and then for final approval during the board’s April 3 meeting. He asked that committee members pass the ordinance Wednesday as is, promising to work with Lee to tweak it before March 6.
“I will do the leg work,” Boeger said. “This has been unaddressed for too long.”
Lee said he could meet the deadline, saying “this does not need an overhaul; just a little tidying up.”
The ordinance, as proposed during the meeting, would be expanded to prohibit consumption of beer on city property, in a car parked on a city street, and inside liquor stores. Violators could be slapped with a $100 fine per offense.
That drew a reaction from city Rep. Terry Adams, who recalled a recurring problem with men drinking and urinating outside a liquor store near city hall.
“Can we fine the liquor stores for allowing people to drink in front of their property? Can we fine the liquor stores for creating this environment?” Adams asked. “Many of these are people with mental illness who can’t afford to pay this fine. So do we put them in jail? How do we do this without harming people who already have a problem?”
Boeger said liquor store owners now are prohibited from selling to someone who is already intoxicated or allowing consumption on their property, but they are not criminally liable once the person is on city property or other private property nearby.
“This ordinance is an infraction. No one is going to prison for an infraction,” Boeger said. “If they can’t pay the ticket, they can plead their case before a judge, a prosecutor could waive the fine, or the judge can allow for the person to go to treatment. There are common practices in addressing this issue.”
City Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell, who represents a district that has a particular problem with drinking and loitering in front of liquor stores, said children are exposed to it on their way to and from school bus stops.
“Just because a person has a mental or emotional disability does not mean they get a free pass on their behavior,” Campbell said. The men “have the wherewithal to buy beer, gamble, count up their money and their points. They need consequences. Children coming home from school should not have to look at” men urinating in public.
It’s not fair, said Redd, the assistant police chief.
“It’s a longstanding quality of life issue,” Redd said. “We’re asking the board to help us bring back a sense of normalcy to these citizens of Stamford.”
Committee members passed the proposed ordinance unanimously.