BANGOR, Maine — If 150 people were shot and killed in Maine this year, the public outrage would ripple from Kittery to Fort Kent, Maine’s top public safety official said Wednesday.
So why isn’t there more concern that the same number of people died last year from drug overdoses, Commissioner Anne Jordan asked, especially considering that the majority were prescription drug overdoses and most of those deaths were entirely preventable?
“More people died from drug overdoses than car accidents [last year],” she said in a telephone interview. “People need to start paying more attention.”
Jordan’s office on Wednesday released the state’s 2009 crime statistics, which showed an overall decrease of about 2 percent. However, robberies and burglaries — especially in rural parts of Maine — rose sharply, a trend Jordan linked directly to the state’s worsening drug problem.
“The increases in robbery and burglary are a result of the increasing demand for money to feed the state’s drug habits,” she said. “In addition to cocaine and heroin, Maine has seen significant increases in the abuse of prescription medication, and that demand leads to more burglaries and robberies.”
Robberies, in particular, increased nearly 20 percent from 332 in 2008 to 398 in 2009. Burglaries increased by 3 percent from 6,516 in 2008 to 6,711 last year. In both categories, the numbers decreased from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2007 to 2008 before going in the other direction last year.
Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said the statewide statistics more or less mirror what he has seen in the Queen City.
“There isn’t a lot that surprised me, but perhaps others might be surprised,” he said. “These types of [property] crimes often rise in a bad economy, and it’s not just in cities.”
Although overdose deaths are not part of the state’s crime statistics, Jordan said it’s increases in other crimes that keep the flow of drugs on the market and contribute to deaths.
She also said public safety is only one part of the solution. Education and prevention are just as crucial to stemming the pervasiveness of drug abuse in Maine.
“Clearly we need to get further attention out about our drug addiction problem,” she said. “People should be screaming from the rooftop.”
Unfortunately, Gastia said many public safety agencies, including his, are more reactive than proactive.
“We have a goal to be proactive and preventative, but it’s not simple,” he said. “On a long-term basis we need to reach the populations that commit crimes, and that begins in schools and continues through adulthood.”
The Uniform Crime Reporting Division, or UCR, of the Maine Department of Public Safety tabulates crime numbers each year based on reported crimes from local, county and state law enforcement agencies.
The reporting division’s statistics show that 33,411 crime index offenses were reported to police during 2009 compared to 34,008 during 2008 for a total crime rate decrease of 1.8 percent.
Offenses are then indexed into categories, including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.
Arsons increased nearly 30 percent from 188 cases in 2008 to 243 cases in 2009, a spike Jordan attributed to the down economy. The value of the damaged property jumped from $3 million to more than $9 million in just one year.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of businesses and homes that have been set on fire for the purpose of insurance fraud,” she said.
Aggravated assaults, simple assaults, rapes or sexual assaults and domestic violence assaults all decreased or stayed the same. There were 26 homicides during the year, down from 31 in 2008.
Overall, the crime rate in Maine is about 25.3 offenses per 1,000 people, still well below the national rate of 45.4 offenses per 1,000 people.