Maine police chief sends message to drivers

AUGUSTA, MAINE (WGME) -- More than 30,000 people pass through Memorial Circle in Augusta every day.

Friday, those people saw the Augusta Police Chief on the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign, sending a bold message to drivers.

For six hours, Chief Robert Gregoire traded in his badge and holster for a ball cap and a handwritten sign.

"Give to the salvation army or local food pantry," Chief Gregoire said as he read his sign aloud. "They won't use your money to buy alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs."

He admits not all panhandlers are substance abusers, but says the ones who are, cause the trouble.

"They're falling out into the roadway, stumbling on the streets, and visiting local businesses aggressively panhandling where they've been removed," Chief Gregoire explained.

He says his officers deal with it several times a week.

"Sometimes two, three, four times a day," the Chief explained.

So, right here on the panhandlers' turf, Gregoire told drivers to take their money elsewhere.

"The five dollars you may give a panhandler and maybe provide one meal, you give that to a food pantry and it could provide five or ten meals and reach many people," Gregoire said.

Many local residents support the Chief's efforts.

"I agree with it wholeheartedly," explained Augusta resident Wanda Ingham.

Even a former panhandler understands the Chief's message.

"I respect it," said Steven Flannery. "I applaud it."

Flannery used to collect spare change for food.

"A dollar or two here, a pocket of change there," he said. "You never know what you might get."

But Flannery says not everyone is so honest.

"They'll do it to go get their next beer and honestly you can't tell which one will do which," Flannery admitted.

For that reason, many people keep their windows up.

"You almost always think they're going to buy a jug of wine," said Ken Cox of Readfield.

But others just can't avoid reaching in their pockets.

"Boy it's hard to resist someone who looks cold and miserable on the street," said Cox's wife, Liza.

Chief Gregoire says his community is generous. He's just hoping that his message will redirect those donations someplace else.

"The fact is, if they want to help, there are other alternatives to help," the Chief said.

For those panhandlers who are really looking for cash to survive, the Chief reminds them there is a local shelter that serves lunch every day in Augusta.

Chief Gregoire says the panhandling problem in the city isn't bad enough that officials would consider a ban.

He hopes Friday's display will encourage people to donate to local organizations.