FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan is defending his actions after losing his temper last month during an interaction with a woman and her children, who were asking drivers for money on the street.
The woman initially told the mayor they were raising money on Plymouth Avenue for “cheer and youth sports,” a fundraising activity she said they had been doing for three years. But the conversation on Aug. 12 quickly escalated after Coogan tried to explain charitable fundraising requires a permit in accordance with city regulations.
“You don’t belong here,” Coogan eventually yelled at the the woman, who said she was from Cumberland, according to police body-worn camera footage Target 12 obtained through a public records request.
“Go back to Cumberland,” he shouted at her multiple times.
The woman — clearly frustrated with the situation — yelled back at the mayor, criticizing him multiple times for supporting “bums,” who are not required to obtain permits to panhandle.
“You’re a piece of [expletive],” the woman yelled over her shoulder at the mayor as she walked away with two children.
“Look in the mirror,” Coogan fired back, spurring her to shout, “No wonder your city has a bunch of crackheads.”
Coogan defended his actions Wednesday. He acknowledged he lost his temper, but he stood by his behavior, saying it stemmed out of concern for the woman’s children.
“I lost my temper because people put children in harm’s way,” Coogan told Target 12, adding that in “a perfect world” he could control his temper better “when kids are at risk.”
The mayor said he was driving by that day when he saw the woman’s son dodging between cars, soliciting money from drivers. Coogan said he parked his car, called the police and then brought the child down the street to where his mother and her daughter were asking for money in a different area.
“He was in the street up there,” the body-cam video shows Coogan shouted at the woman, whose face was blurred in the video. She has not been identified.
“You would leave your son in the street?” he said.
“I was watching him from right here,” she shouted back.
Coogan said Wednesday he regularly asks panhandlers to get off the street, explaining he’d just recently told a woman selling flowers with young children to stop soliciting businesses alongside the roadway. Asked why he doesn’t leave the job of enforcement to his police department, Coogan said he’s willing to step in and serve his city in any way he’s physically or technically able.
“Say I had driven by and that kid was canning on the street, and I called up the chief and I said, ‘Hey, we got kids here that don’t belong,'” Coogan said. “He gets hit by a car up the road and I drove to my office. How would I feel? I wouldn’t be sitting here you right now. I’d probably be in my office crying. No, that’s not me. Go vote for someone else.”
The video comes out at the same time Coogan proposed a new ordinance this week that would limit people’s ability to panhandle in Fall River. Coogan was adamant the ordinance wouldn’t outright ban panhandling, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court in 2020.
But the new regulation would put restrictions on where and when people can solicit money on the roadways, requiring it happen during the day, and people must stay three feet away from vehicles and cannot approach unless the driver first engages in the transaction.
The ordinance would also punish people for “false or misleading” solicitation. Violating the rule in any way would result in a misdemeanor charge.
Coogan argues the proposal is an attempt to crack down on people who are aggressively approaching people’s cars, dodging in and out of traffic and become verbally abusive. The aggressiveness has become worse in recent years, he added, saying the timing of the proposal had nothing to do with his interaction in August.
“We have numerous complaints coming to our office all the time about someone tapping on the window of a car, someone walking in the street,” he told Target 12. “We have to do a better job.”
The ACLU of Massachusetts, however, denounced the proposal. Senior managing attorney Rush Bourquin called Coogan’s proposed ordinance “a blatant violation of free speech rights,” adding that it’s inconsistent with the SJC ruling in 2020 “and similar cases from around the country.”
“Such ordinances are also bad public policy as they drive vulnerable individuals deeper into poverty and exacerbate the crisis of homelessness,” Bourquin told Target 12 in a statement. “We urge the city of Fall River not to adopt the ordinance.”
The ordinance was introduced to the City Council on Tuesday and referred to the Committee on Ordinances and Legislation.