Police Chief says landlords, tenants, neighbors need to talk it out

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

In the 15 months he’s been on the job, Bridgton’s Chief of Police Kevin Schofield has sent out a total of five letters warning landlords they faced civil penalties under the town’s Disorderly Housing Ordinance.

And in each case, he said, the letters alone were enough to restore the peace.

“Every letter that I’ve sent out has generated productive discussion and activity, with (both) the property owner and their tenants, and with the property owner and the police department,” Schofield said.

The only exception was recently, when Schofield and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz felt it would be prudent to see if Bridgton’s Board of Selectmen wanted to weigh in on a dispute over a vacation rental property owned by Peter Roth on Thompson Road in West Bridgton. Neighbors of the Moose Pond lakefront property had become so fed up over the rowdiness and noise on the weekends that 23 of them signed a petition complaining about it.

Selectmen, however, opted to let Schofield deal with the issue, rather than take it to the next level and hold a formal hearing, possibly leading to a $250 fine.

“Our goal isn’t just to give someone a $250 fine, our goal, I would hope, is to be able to reside amongst one another with a high level of stability and a high level of quality of life,” Schofield said.

It is precisely those quality of life issues, not criminal behavior, that Schofield believes leads to many neighborhood complaints.

“I get concerned that people are maybe a little too quick to call the police to resolve (a complaint about a neighbor) when it’s really a quality of life issue, needing a neighborhood conversation about how their noise, habits or lifestyles are affecting one another,” he said.

At Thompson Road, he encouraged Roth and other Thompson Road residents to agree on rules of conduct, akin to forming a road association.

Schofield said the Disorderly House Ordinance only works when police are able to substantiate complaints by neighbors. A written warning from police is only sent to a landlord under the ordinance if police find evidence of at least two substantiated complaints of disorderliness within a 60-day period.

If the complaint is unsubstantiated, it doesn’t count. Police must assess, in other words, whether the person complaining has a right to complain, given the time of day and other factors.

“If the music is loud, but it’s the middle of the afternoon, people should be a little more understanding or patient with that,” he said.

Over a recent two-week period, Schofield said police received three or four complaints from a Fowler Street resident about tenants that lived next door. In all of the complaints, police determined the behavior wasn’t serious enough to be considered disorderly, either under the civil ordinance or under the criminal definition of disorderly conduct.

“I firmly believe that some of these neighborhood quality of life issues should be dealt with on a person-to-person level,” he said.

Instead, the complaining neighbor turns immediately to the police to be the mediator because they’re hesitant to confront the person directly, “for a whole litany of reasons,” Schofield said.

The risk of using police resources to mediate disputes, the police chief said, is that the neighbor who is upset could end up looking to police officers “as the boy who cried wolf” if too many of the person’s complaints turn out to be unsubstantiated.

“I’m not suggesting for a minute that the Bridgton Police aren’t going to respond,” Schofield said.

And the police chief also recognizes that, in certain cases, an attempt at outreach has taken place by the complaining neighbor, yet their appeal has been repeatedly ignored. Then too, a complaining neighbor may have a valid reason to feel threatened by the other neighbor.

“It gets tricky. However, after a while, the level of importance or urgency at that address (in the eyes of police officers) could fall down the scale,” Schofield said.

So far on the job, Schofield has seen several streets in town, including Walker Street, Fowler Street and Thompson Road, generate a high number of police calls. Asked whether a majority of them were nuisance calls, Schofield said, “I want to be careful about that. What I would refer to them as, are quality of life complaints.”

Schofield said it would be difficult, and in some cases not possible, to access records of police calls to specific addresses prior to his arrival in Bridgton. He said it would take time to assemble statistics on types and numbers of calls to specific addresses since his arrival.

Along with responding to neighbor-to-neighbor disputes, police also are called upon to intercede when landlords and tenants don’t get along. The police officer’s role in those situations is, again, to respond to the scene and listen to both sides in order to decide whether any local or state laws have been broken. Whether it’s a tenant accusing the landlord of harassment, or a landlord accusing a tenant of obstructing their access to their property, a police officer must look closely at the question of intent.

“A landlord has a right to go on to their property, but they can’t yell, kick and bang around inappropriately. No one ever has a right to behave in a threatening manner,” whether it be the landlord or the tenant, the police chief said.

The Bridgton Community Crime Watch Group met in May and decided to tackle the issue of what they say are a couple of “slumlords” in town who are not keeping their rental properties up to minimum health and safety code standards.

Scholfield noted that police have responded to complaints filed by tenants who claimed they had been harassed by their landlords. One tenant claimed the landlord called her every minute or so for an hour on her cell phone.

Schofield also pointed out that in some cases, simple conversation between tenant and landlord result in finding a middle ground. The police chief said after The Bridgton News ran an article detailing the BCCW’s concerns over the problem of substandard housing in Bridgton. Landlord Tony Numberg and his wife, Betty, visited Schofield’s office bearing a 2010 letter from the Bridgton Police that issued a previous warning over a disorderly house.

“He said he immediately had a meeting with his tenants to rectify it,” Schofield said. “That’s just an example of how the process is supposed to work.”

Schofield has no opinion on whether the town needs a substandard housing ordinance, as the BCCW believes, to police the condition of rental properties in town.

“That’s really more of a code enforcement issue,” Schofield said.

Asked to comment on the BCCW’s stance that there is a connection between substandard rental housing and the type of tenant that tends to rent such housing, Schofield said, “I don’t think it’s a police matter. We’re not trained to enforce building codes, or even recognize violations, unless, obviously, if there’s wires hanging down or sparks flying out.”

Schofield said he has fielded many calls since the article ran in the News, and said he hopes neighbors will attempt to mediate disputes over “quality of life” issues by talking to one another before automatically calling the police.

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