LEWISTON — As the investigation into the beating death of Donald Guisti continues after more than a month of few answers, local organizations, with help from the city, are spearheading a project to put trained community safety volunteers in Kennedy Park.
The project, known as “Peace in the Park,” is the latest in a series of attempts the city has made to bolster safety in and around the park. These efforts have included more security cameras and an earlier curfew.
The park project is the first to be directly organized by downtown community organizations, including the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, and will involve human rights educator Steve Wessler.
Volunteers trained by Wessler in conflict de-escalation techniques will work in pairs in the park, and be easily identifiable as safety volunteers by wearing matching T-shirts.
Wessler, a lawyer, developed and led the civil rights unit of the Maine Attorney General’s Office from 1992 to 1999, and went on to form organizations and programs, including the Center for Preventing Hate, the Unity Project, which works to discourage bullying in schools, and the New Migration Project, which fights bias and discrimination against immigrants.
Wessler said the Lewiston training could start as soon as next week. He led a similar training program last year in Northern Ireland, which focused on sectarian issues in a park.
Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, said Thursday the idea stemmed from a stakeholders meeting earlier this week, which featured Lewiston-Auburn city and police officials and community leaders. She said the project was seen as something the city could do immediately to address tensions downtown, while other long-term efforts are planned.
The park effort, Hussein said, was first pitched by Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley as a way to get volunteer help from the community so any issues or incidents could be reported immediately to police.
Hussein said the group would like to identify 24 volunteers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to serve as park monitors. She said the group has reached out to many organizations that serve the downtown and has asked for two volunteers from each.
“It’s the community coming together and ensuring that we do what we need to do,” she said.
A community group known as Lewiston United for Peace and Hope is organizing a peace march and vigil for the streets surrounding the park, but a date has yet to be set.
Wessler said his training session in Ireland involved police and the equivalent of park rangers, who act as community safety monitors.
At the meeting this week, Wessler told local stakeholders, “We can do this.”
He said the one-day training will focus on “skills and strategies for de-escalating conflict, particularly with young people, but also with adults.”
Giusti died from injuries suffered in a June 12 fight on Knox Street, near Kennedy Park. Witnesses said two groups started brawling on Knox Street after teens in a car drove past the park and shot pellets and BBs at a group gathered there.
Many have said the fight was the result of rising racial tensions in the park area. Other recent incidents, which have included drug-related shootings and fights, have added to the unease in the downtown. Fear spiked again last week when Kimberly Dobbie, 48, was fatally stabbed in front of her 11-year-old sons on Sabattus Street. A suspect, Albert Flick, 76, is being held without bail at the county jail.
Wessler said the only clear rule for the volunteers will be that if violence does occur, the volunteers should avoid getting involved and call police.
“It’s building relationships, getting to know people,” he said of the role.
Wessler said it also means police officers will be able to patrol other areas of the city.
Superintendent of Schools Bill Webster said Thursday that the school department is working to get the word out on the effort. It is encouraging potential volunteers to contact the superintendent’s office for more information.
Webster said representatives of Bates College and Central Maine Community College attended the stakeholders meeting this week.
“We were just doing some brainstorming on how to help the community, and the tone, as we’re dealing with the tragic event of last month, which appears to have been more racially motivated,” Webster said.
He said the trained volunteers in the park might be able to “mitigate what might otherwise be issues that come up.”
Hussein said with a tragedy like this, there is not one way of addressing it.
“You have to attack the problem from different directions,” she said.
“Police have been doing a lot,” Hussein said, “and for community organizations, this is our part.”
Lewiston police officers enforce an earlier Kennedy Park curfew in June. A new community project will train community safety volunteers in de-escalation techniques to patrol the park. (Sun Journal file photo)
Peace march and vigil
Members of the downtown community are planning an anti-violence march and vigil, expected to take participants from Knox Street to Sabattus Street.
Community members involved in what is dubbed “Lewiston United for Peace and Hope,” which held a rally in Kennedy Park immediately following Donald Guisti’s death last month, have planned the event as violence has continued this summer.
Organizer Melissa Dunn posted on the group’s Facebook page that the march is expected to begin on Knox Street, stop at Walnut and Horton streets and end on Sabattus Street.
“Each location holds significance due the recent incidents that have occurred,” she wrote.
An official date has not been set, but city officials said it could be this Sunday, July 22.