Former Hartford businessman Jim Downey is locked in an ugly fight with the city -- he's been arrested -- that is delaying the new Public Safety Complex in the North End
By Daniel D'Ambrosio
February 21, 2008
Following five hip surgeries, retired electrical contractor Jim Downey walks with a cane. He tapped the cane repeatedly on the heavily planked floor of his 118-year-old warehouse north of downtown last week when he discussed his alleged mistreatment by Hartford Police during an arrest in October over illegally dumped garbage at his building.
"I'm lucky I can walk after that incident," said Downey. "They were dragging me up the street like I'm an axe murderer or something."
Downey's run-in with the cops is particularly ironic, since the city actually wanted to pay Downey $225,000 to buy a building that he owns on Atlantic Street in order to clear the way for a new $77 million Public Safety Complex — a project that could serve as a cornerstone for improved city services in the troubled north end of town.
The thing is, Downey is so irritated with the city now, he doesn't want to sell his building anymore.
So the city says it will acquire the vacated building through eminent domain, for $205,000.
Downey will lose the building either way, and lose $20,000 that he might have gotten otherwise. But that doesn't matter, he says. What matters now is the way he was manhandled by police after he got into a verbal exchange with a DEP employee who didn't like the way Downey was cleaning out his building.
"They didn't want to hear his side of the story," said Judd White, a lifelong friend of Downey's. "Too bad, that's when they threw him in the [police cruiser]."
Downey, 67, was arrested on Oct. 9 after Jackie Purnell, an employee of the state Department of Environmental Protection whose job is to search out illegally dumped garbage, called police because she felt threatened by Downey when she tried to talk to him about garbage on his property.
Purnell could not be reached for comment.
The DEP defends Purnell's actions in the case, saying Downey left her no choice.
"Jackie Purnell conducted herself in a professional manner and properly notified local authorities of her concerns about activities at this site," said DEP Spokesman Dennis Schain of the incident.
Schain said Purnell saw Downey dumping material out of the four-story brick warehouse built in 1890, and advised him that was "not appropriate."
"When she felt he became verbally abusive, she alerted Hartford Police," said Schain.
Downey counters that he wasn't dumping anything out of his building, that the garbage already there wasn't his, and that he and Purnell never spoke before she called the cops.
"Actually I never came out of the building [to talk to Purnell]," Downey said. "I was on the third floor."
Sitting handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser last October, Downey told city Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Nasto — who arrived on the scene of the fracas too late to calm everyone down — that the deal to sell his 19,000-square-foot building to the city for $225,000 was off.
"When I showed up [Downey] started yelling, 'The price has gone up!'" said Nasto. "I told him 'I can't unarrest you.' [Downey] has refused since that time to negotiate. He can't be reasoned with; he's so angry about being arrested."
The police report from Oct. 9 says Downey was arrested for breach of peace and interfering with police. The police say that when they arrived on the scene, they first spoke with Purnell and told Downey they would speak to him when they were finished speaking with the DEP official.
Downey allegedly responded by yelling, "Fuck you, speak to me right now!"
A third charge, Threatening, resulted from a remark Downey allegedly made to the officer filling out the arrest form for his first two charges in a police cruiser: "I should kick your ass you rookie punk, you have no clue who you are fucking with," according to the police report.
Downey allegedly went on to refer to various officers as "pig-faced fuckers," during the booking process, singling one out as a "nazi looking mother fucker," according to the police report.
Downey denied all of this in his interview with the Advocate, and in fact denies swearing at police.
"What have I got, Tourette's Syndrome or something?" said Downey. "Come on, this is crazy. It's all crazy made up."
And Downey says he is being blamed for garbage on the site that didn't orginate with him.
As the Advocate reported last March, illegal dumping is a big problem in Hartford, with construction debris and garbage piling up in at least 40 sites around the city, including Atlantic Street, a dead-end in the no-man's land between downtown and the North End.
Downey said he had removed at least 100 truckloads of illegally dumped garbage from his property over the last 10 years, using his own 14-foot enclosed vans to haul the garbage to dumpsters at other commercial properties he owns.
"It never ended, nobody ever did anything about this place," said Downey. "The police didn't come down here. They couldn't care less."
Last week Downey visited his warehouse for the first time since his arrest to find it ransacked by thieves who have trashed the building, hauling out nuts and bolts, electric motors, copper wiring and other inventory Downey, an admitted pack rat, stockpiled from his decades as an electrical contractor.
In the eminent domain action, the price offered to Downey for his building was lowered to $205,000, the average of two independent appraisals of the property as required by law. Nasto, who said he actually likes Downey as a person, has offered to drop the condemnation process if Downey would agree to sell.
But not surprisingly, Downey is unlikely to pick up the phone to call Nasto with a closing date any time soon.
"They take the building, they throw me out so I can't get my stuff out, they let all these people come steal and wreck my building then they lower the price," said Downey. "They caused this thing, then they're telling me it's not intermixed. Nobody's that stupid."
When he announced the new complex in July, Mayor Eddie Perez said it would house "first responders" — police, fire administration, fire marshals and central dispatch — and that it would "bring police closer to the community it serves." The complex also gets police out of their current isolated headquarters in the North Meadows on Jennings Road, where employees have long complained about rats and mold. So the dispute between Downey and the DEP has derailed the mayor's plan for the moment, stalling the start of construction.
Making matters worse, the condemnation process will take 35 days, and can't start until the end of this month. Once started, it will take about 18 months to build the complex.