BANGOR, Maine — High-profile crimes usually scream from the headlines: Teenager found slain on Bangor Waterfront. Union Street bank branch robbed. Man sexually assaulted at party on First Street.
It’s the crimes that don’t make headlines that are on the rise in Bangor.
Large spikes in property crimes (burglaries and thefts) pushed the city’s crime rate to 71.6 indexed crimes per 1,000 people in 2009, according to the most recent statistics released by the Maine Department of Public Safety. Bangor’s crime rate was the highest in Maine among communities with more than 10,000 people and nearly triple the statewide average of 25.34 crimes per 1,000 people.
Police Chief Ron Gastia said he fully expected to see the numbers rise, but he doesn’t take them to heart because so many factors contribute to a higher crime rate in Bangor. Officials can point to services such as methadone clinics and other phenomena such as the high number of sex offenders and homeless people in Bangor as reasons for increased crime.
“If you look at thefts and see they are up, you have to ask ‘Where do people go to steal things?’ Bangor has a high percentage of retail stores,” Gastia said in an interview Monday. “We have to look at how crimes are reported, because these numbers account only for reportable crimes. We can’t assume that every agency reports the same way.”
Anti-casino groups have long tried to link the city’s increase in crime to the arrival of Hollywood Slots Hotel and Raceway, the state’s only gambling facility to date.
Since 2005, when Hollywood Slots opened, crime in Bangor has gone up every year, while the statewide rate has remained steady and communities of Bangor’s size have seen decreases. Portland’s crime rate, for instance, has dropped 3 percent since 2005 and Lewiston’s has fallen by 9 percent.
“We don’t know if the casino is linked to the increase in the city’s crime rate, but with all due respect to the city’s police officials, their explanations are unsatisfactory,” said Dennis Bailey, executive director of CasinosNO!
“They only seem to count the number of calls they get to respond to incidents on the casino property, but the problems linked to gambling addiction are much more insidious and harder to determine.”
John Osborne, general manager of Hollywood Slots, did not return a message seeking comment.
From 2005 to 2006, Bangor’s crime rate rose from 51.65 to 63.01 per 1,000 residents. In 2008, crime increased to 65.07 per 1,000 and this year, the rate eclipsed 70.
“I’m not trying to defend the numbers, but if you’re going to compare, per capita isn’t a fair comparison,” Gastia said. “Our population in the daytime is much higher than 32,000. I would dare say Bangor is the largest service center in the state. It draws from the biggest geographic area.”
Two officials with Husson University, which offers a criminal justice and legal studies program, agreed that the Maine Department of Public Safety statistics don’t tell the whole story and in some cases misrepresent the story.
“If you put it all in the same pot, it’s easy to assume a spike in crime, but it’s really being motivated by one or two categories,” said Cornel Plebani, an assistant professor at Husson.
Marie Hansen, associate dean for Husson’s School of Business, said the increase in property crime is real but not unique to Bangor. More than half of all reporting agencies in Penobscot County saw rises in the number of thefts.
Bangor has long been considered one of the safest cities in the country, and both Hansen and Plebani agreed that the 2009 statistics fail to disprove that.
“They indicate that you are much more likely to be a victim to theft or breaking and entering than rape or murder,” Plebani said.
Bailey with CasinosNO! argued that crimes can sometimes be attributed to Hollywood Slots even if a direct link is not there.
“For example, if someone gambles away all of his money so he can’t afford to buy dinner and gets caught stealing a can of tuna fish at Shaws, is that a casino-related crime or just shoplifting?” Bailey said. “If someone gambles away the family’s nest egg, goes home and gets into an argument with his wife that results in a physical altercation, is that a casino-related crime or listed as domestic violence?”
Hansen, however, said those links are nearly impossible to make. More often, she said, a number of factors combine to spur increases.
“The city’s unemployment rate nearly doubled in 2009,” she said, referring to a rise from 4.7 percent in ’08 to 8.2 percent last year. “That probably has more impact [than a casino].”