Sagging economy will likely spur crime

Posted Oct. 17, 2008, at 6:10 p.m.

While most of us are focusing on concerns such as food, heat and our shrinking retirement accounts as our economy teeters on the brink of recession, Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia is worried about another aspect of this economic meltdown.

“We have not got a handle on our drug problem here,” Gastia said this week. “With this economic downturn and with the expected cuts to the drug enforcement budget, I’m nervous about what may happen.”

CasinosNo!, the group opposed to expanding gambling in Maine, has made a lot of noise about last year’s 22 percent crime rate increase in Bangor. It would like us to believe that it is no coincidence that the increase occurred after the first full year of operation of Hollywood Slots.

As the group continues its battle to sway voters away from Question 2 on the ballot, which calls for a casino in Oxford County, that 22 percent crime increase keeps popping up at press conferences and rallies.

Actually, Gastia claims his officers see little crime related to the racino. He suggested this week that any increase in crime in Bangor was much more likely attributable to the increasing level of the area’s drug problem.

“I just met with the [City] Council and told them that we don’t have a handle on the drug problem at all. I informed them of the very real risk that MDEA [the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency] was at risk of losing one-third of its staff, and we can not pick up that ball.”

Last year, MDEA lost about $600,000 in federal grant money. Unless the state picks up that portion, which is looking less and less likely, MDEA could be facing devastating budget and staffing cuts.

A bad economy has a lot of consequences, and increased drug use and crime rates are among them.

“Look, people get depressed and turn to drugs as an escape,” said Gastia. “People already using drugs will have less money to buy them and will turn to crime in order to support their habit. We already are seeing more identity theft as people steal credit cards from their mothers and grandmothers to buy drugs. I expect we’ll see an increase in car break-ins and shoplifting. People will do what they have to do to survive.”

With a depressed economy, an already well-established drug culture and an expected decline in law enforcement, the ingredients for a “perfect storm” may well be in place, Gastia noted.

“I cringe at the thought,” he said.

While heroin and prescription opiates continue to dominate the region, Gastia said officers are seeing a significant upswing in the use of powder and crack cocaine.

Ten years ago, as this community was embroiled in a battle over methadone treatment and the scourge of heroin addiction, the drug problem was a prominent topic of discussion. Since then, three methadone clinics have opened here.

Major drug busts still make headlines, but if the expected cuts to MDEA occur, there most certainly will be fewer of them. Instead, clues to the area’s drug problem may show up more often in lengthier police blotters in the form of more reports of thefts and robberies.

But the risk extends far beyond car break-ins and increased shoplifting. Drug dealing is a violent business, as Portland’s police chief noted this week.

Drug abuse is not unique to Bangor. Aroostook and Washington counties have significant problems.

This is not time for propaganda or finger pointing. It’s not time for blurring the truth in the name of political gain. Increased crime rates in Bangor are due to drug dealing and substance abuse.

Until now MDEA has been the safety net for police departments across the state. That no longer may be the case.

Law enforcement officials around the state should be preparing for what’s ahead, when they find themselves, like many people, facing a long, cold winter with no safety net in place.

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