Portland police officers outside the post office at Portland Street and Forest Avenue on Aug. 31, where they removed homeless people's possessions from near a bus shelter. (Courtesy Rachel Corey)
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Portland police on Saturday defended the actions of officers who were videotaped calling possessions said to belong to unhoused people “trash” before kicking the items to the street and throwing them into a garbage truck.

Although police described the items as “abandoned property,” an official of the ACLU of Maine said officers’ actions showed a “lack of basic human decency” toward the homeless and raised “serious constitutional claims.”

The video, captured by Portland resident Rachel Corey and posted Aug. 31 on Twitter, also depicts officers telling Corey to leave what they called private property – although she was on public property at the post office on Portland Street, near Deering Oaks Park.

Near the end of the video, one officer followed Corey and stood behind her while she filmed, moving with her. He did not speak to her but followed her to her car, where Corey assumed he was noting her license plate and trying to intimidate her.

Corey can also be heard saying the officer gets into his cruiser and follows her for a short period as she drives towards South Portland.

“This is the most intimidation I’ve ever dealt with,” she said in the video.

In an interview Sept. 4, Corey said she had just come out of the post office that day when she saw the police cruiser parked in front of the bus shelter at Portland Street and Forest Avenue, and what looked like officers telling people to go away. She said it seemed like people who had been camping at the park probably left their possessions behind when police arrived.

She said she noticed the police gathering things like blankets and clothing and kicking them to the street.

“It seemed disrespectful,” Corey said.

Shortly thereafter, a city garbage truck arrives. Police officers help toss the items into the back of the truck, and a sanitation worker even tosses in an entire shopping cart.

At one point, one officer tells the others “Well done, guys.”

Early in the footage, one officer asks Corey why she is there, repeatedly asking if she is waiting for the bus, or there to conduct business at “City Hall.” Corey corrects him, saying they were outside the post office.

Corey said she decided to film the events in part because in the week preceding, there had been calls to gather blankets, tents, and other supplies for people staying at Deering Oaks, and this action by police seemed “counterproductive.”

“I wanted to make sure that was recorded,” Corey said. “… I wish folks didn’t have to see a video to believe things are happening in this world.” 

Deering Oaks Park has become an encampment area for some of the city’s homeless during the summer. The city discontinued maintenance of the park for several weeks because of safety concerns, and as a result, trash and debris have accumulated. Although camping overnight in the park is against the law, one demand of protesters who stayed outside City Hall earlier this summer was to decriminalize camping.

Emma Bond, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, called what the video captured shocking and a “lack of basic human decency.” Bond said unhoused individuals do not lose their dignity or constitutional rights “simply because they do not have the security of a home’s four walls.”

“People who are unhoused do not lose their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, nor do they lose their due process rights,” Bond said. “Indeed, courts have found that unhoused people have a right to security over their personal belongings. Additionally, if police are destroying property with the goal of removing unhoused people from public parks and sidewalks, that behavior raises serious constitutional concerns.”

Portland Police Lt. Robert Martin on Sept. 4 did not respond to a request for comment.

But on Saturday, Sept. 5, after the video received significant attention on social media, the Police Department released a six-paragraph statement on Facebook that said the officers were acting after a property manager in the neighborhood “requested special attention to their property due to people leaving needles and trash on the property. These individuals were consistently confrontational with staff trying to clean up the area in the mornings.”

Corey, meanwhile, said the people experiencing homelessness have outlined their needs, and one of those needs is to decriminalize camping, and in essence, decriminalize their existence.

“So this was very inhumane,” she said.

Corey said what she experienced “is only a fraction of what people experiencing homelessness receive on a daily basis.” But she said it was still frustrating to have a police officer follow her around, and cut her off from what the other officers were doing.

“He’s the one (who is) armed, he’s the one with state authority, and I felt very uncomfortable,” she said. “He followed me to my car. Then he got into his car and followed me for several blocks. That doesn’t seem like a good use of time. My heart was definitely racing. It felt like they were more concerned with ensuring the recording doesn’t happen in the future and they can go on with business as usual (in throwing away the items). That was concerning to me.”

Corey Video, Part 1

Corey Video, Part 2

Portland police respond

Here is the complete statement posted by the Portland Police Department Sept. 5 on Facebook:

“We have recently received many comments, messages, and inquiries regarding a video circling the internet and we wanted to provide some clarity.

“Within the past few weeks, a property manager in the area of Portland Street and Forest Avenue requested special attention to their property due to people leaving needles and trash on the property. These individuals were consistently confrontational with staff trying to clean up the area in the mornings.

“On the morning of Monday, August 31st at approximately 0827 hours, officers proactively responded to the area of Portland Street at Forest Avenue to assist DPW and Park and Recreation with the removal of trash and debris from the sidewalk and surrounding area. In addition to the special attention request, the department also received a large number of requests through the SeeClickFix program to remove the trash that had accumulated in the area over the past few days.

“The items that are seen on the ground in front of the bus stop were abandoned property, soiled and littered with needles, among other hazardous materials. The property included soiled blankets, rotten food items, towels, cardboard, and beer cans. The property had accumulated over the past few days and no one within close proximity to the items claimed ownership or affiliation during that time. There were no identifiers within the property that would indicate who it belonged to and it was determined to be abandoned.

“The officer seen moving the property with his foot was doing so for his own safety in order to avoid being stuck by a needle. The abandoned property can be seen strewn along the sidewalk from the corner of Portland St and Forest Av., past the bus stop. This poses a public health risk to people who utilize the post-office, sidewalk, and the bus stop.

“The Portland Police Department will continue to work with other city resources to preserve a safe and healthy environment in Deering Oaks and the surrounding Bayside area for residents and visitors to enjoy. We recognize the challenges being faced by our unhoused community and will continue to collaborate with social service partners to support their health and safety as well.”

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