AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s top law enforcement officials warned lawmakers that the cost of fighting crime is going up as criminals use the latest technology and investigators step up efforts to thwart them.
“Every time we break a meth lab, it costs $15,000 because of the care we have to take and the hazmat [team] that we have to send in,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Morris.
He said the chemicals used to make methamphetamine and other designer drugs are dangerous; some are toxic and others explosive.
Morris said those types of cases cause overtime, as do missing persons cases and homicides, and the associated costs are significant and seem to be on the rise.
“Right now in the Alya Reynolds case, [the tally] is more than $97,000 just for the state police,” he said. “The missing firefighter from Florida cost us a lot of money. We are spending more and more money on what we call the major crimes unit.”
Firefighter Jerry Perdomo’s missing person case later became a homicide case after his body was found near Bangor. The Reynolds case remains under investigation.
In answer to a question from Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, Morris said the increasing costs would mean greater appropriations requests in the future.
“We are not only seeing increased costs, we are seeing reduced federal grant funds and special revenue funds,” Morris said.
Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, said overtime for complex cases is only part of the cost problem facing all of law enforcement. He said criminals are making use of the wide array of available electronic devices to commit crimes, and police are always playing catch-up with changing technology.
“We are solving more crimes today through science than we ever did,” he said. “The demand and the cost of doing that is increasing exponentially.”
Williams told lawmakers their initial approval of $362,000 for three additional positions at the computer crime lab will not reduce the backlog of work, but may keep it from growing. He said nearly everybody has a computer, a cellphone and other electronic devices.
“Just think of yourself and your children or grandchildren; every one of you and every one of them probably have some type of electronic appliance,” he said. “So when a crime is committed, that has to be looked at. When we stop vehicles now, we used to look for drugs and stolen property. The first thing we look for now are cellphones because that has a person’s life in it.”
Under questioning from Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, Williams said that search for a cellphone only happens when police have stopped a vehicle for probable cause of a crime.
Williams said while the caseload is growing, he could only think of one case lost in court, and that was because of a loophole in the law that lawmakers since have closed. He said in most cases there is a guilty plea and no trial.
The scope of the computer crime unit backlog is spelled out in detail in documents submitted to the Appropriations Committee. As of March 30, the backlog waiting for analysis included: 417 computers and hard drives, 71 cellphones, 54 thumb drives, 32 digital cameras, 25 memory cards, eight zip drives, eight Xbox game players, six iPods, three GPS units, two digital recorders, two e-book readers, and more than 600 individual CD and DVD disks.
“Some of these can take hours on hours to analyze,” Lt. Glenn Lang, director of the Computer Crime Unit, told the Criminal Justice Committee last month.
He said some of the additional positions requested in the supplemental budget would be modeled on the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency practice of hiring police officers from local agencies so they can get training and experience in drug cases.
The Appropriations Committee has given initial approval to the additional positions, but work has not been completed on the supplemental budget.