Safety Third

Posted April 11, 2010, at 6:25 p.m.

The news that Maine ranked third in the annual CQ Press crime ranking of the nation’s safest states should generate some local pride. The fact that Maine follows Vermont (No. 2) and New Hampshire (No. 1) should inspire an advertising campaign. Imagine the video or still images for TV or magazine presentation: rocky streams flowing under covered bridges; village centers with red brick buildings; clapboard homes and a white church steeple rising overhead; lobster boats bobbing in a harbor. And then the tag line: “Northern New England — The safest place in America to raise your family.”

Two of those three states are struggling to retain or grow population; Maine’s population has grown just 7 percent in the period between 1990 and 2007; Vermont’s grew 10 percent during the period, and New Hampshire grew 19 percent. Maine’s aging and slow-growing population continues to plague efforts to grow the economy, so any angle that state leaders can use is worth exploiting. And it’s not exactly manipulative to boast about Maine’s low crime rate; families with young children and retirees both identify safety from crime as a key factor in determining where to live.

The CQ Press notes that Maine has been in the top three of its annual list in each of the last 16 years. The ranking system analyzed lots of data, but six crimes were weighted more heavily than the others. In assaults, Maine ranked 50th (or best). For burglary, its rank was 36; for murder, 47; motor vehicle theft, 49; rape, 30, and robbery, 44. Those writing on Web sites aimed at law enforcement audiences took a smirking tone at the rankings, suggesting that each state and even regions within a state classify crime differently. But even if the rankings are approximate, it’s clear that rural New England has this part of the quality-of-life equation cornered.

Other cold-weather states followed New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine on the list: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. There may be a connection between the number of nights each year in which the temperatures dip below freezing and the inclination to fight or steal. Iowa and two other New England states, Rhode Island and Connecticut, rounded out the top 10.

Of course, it’s more than just cold weather and small populations that account for the low crime rate. Maine’s law enforcement agencies are largely community-based; officers get to know the neighborhoods they patrol. And most law enforcement agencies in Maine are operated by local government — towns, cities and counties — so the public only has to attend the next selectmen, council or commissioners meeting to express its concern about responsiveness.

For the present, Maine leaders ought to fire up the PR machine and sell our safety to the nation.

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