LINCOLN, Maine — When William Lawrence became Lincoln’s police chief in mid-April 2011, the Police Department had a 20 percent case clearance rate for the previous 12 months, about 10 points below the national average for cases closed by arrest.
The department was understaffed, its officers were inexperienced, strings of burglaries and thefts had gone unsolved and the police command staff had totally turned over several times within the previous five years.
As of this month, the department’s roster is at full staff, with six fulltime officers and 10 reserve or part-time officers, Lawrence said. A new detective’s position has been filled with an officer with about 12 years of experience and, best of all to Lawrence, so far its April to April clearance rate is 31 percent, meeting the goal he set a year ago with a percentage point to spare.
“I am excited that we hit that figure,” Lawrence said Friday. “We were a young police department that had very little experience. Now that we’ve met our 30 percent goal, I am hopeful that next year we’ll be at the 40 percent mark.”
Another statistical indicator, the department’s clearance rate for the 2011 calendar year, shows an increase to 27.7 percent, according to a report Lawrence released Friday.
That report lists 64 of 231 reported incidents as cleared by arrest from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011. Another six incidents are listed as unfounded. The report lists one robbery and one attempted rape each as unsolved, with 36 of 62 assaults listed as cleared, a clearance rate of 58.1 percent. Four assaults involved minors, the report states.
Four of 43 burglaries (9.3 percent), two of 15 forcible entries (13.3 percent), one of 21 unforced but unlawful entries (4.8 percent), and one of seven attempted forcible entries (14.3 percent) were cleared, according to the report.
Twenty-three of 120 larcenies (19.2 percent) were cleared, with an additional one of five motor vehicle thefts (20 percent) were cleared, the report states.
Town Council Chairman Steve Clay believes Lawrence is responsible for most of the department’s improvement.
“Chief Lawrence has brought to the table a good understanding of management and how to manage people. He plays to people’s strengths,” Clay said Saturday. “He finds their strengths and assigns them accordingly and I think that has made a huge difference.”
People feel safer in Lincoln than they did a year ago, former Town Manager Lisa Goodwin said. Lawrence has hired well, lets his officers know when they’ve done well, has improved their training and is building partnerships within the community, she said.
As an example: Lawrence used the town’s first bath salts arrest in June to raise awareness of the town’s problems with illegal drug dealing and to start teaching local businesses and agencies about the new drug, Goodwin said.
“We were talking about and addressing bath salts before anybody else did in the state,” Goodwin said. “He took it a step further and is educating people on it. It’s not something that the people of Lincoln don’t know about.”
Clay also attributed Lincoln’s improvements to the lack of staff turnover. The constant change brought with it turf battles and a general sort of instability that led to poor investigative follow-up, he said.
“Over the years there has been a lot of undermining of the chief,” Clay said. “Undermining did happen. It wasn’t for a lack of the police chief trying.”
“We would send people to school and they would end up leaving for other jobs,” Clay added. “It caused a lack of consistency, follow up on cases, the investigating that needed to be done. Bam, a person would be gone.”
Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy said he has seen some improvement in Lincoln police. He recommended last May that Lincoln hire a detective because of the department’s lack of follow-up in dealing with registered sex offenders who live in town.
Also, six child sexual abuse referrals had made to the department in the several weeks prior, indicating a need for an officer who could investigate possible sex crimes full time instead of bouncing from call to call the way patrolman typically do, he said.
The lack of a detective left police hamstrung, Almy said Friday.
“From our experience, when a police department, especially a small department like Lincoln, had a detective, they will have a better ability to catch and convict people who commit serious crimes such as burglary or felony theft,” Almy said. “Lincoln patrol officers investigate burglaries at the beginning. They are able to do a certain amount of work but not the follow-up we need.”
Besides investigating possible links between crimes, conducting surveillance and doing follow-up interviews, a detective can help prosecutors answer questions vital to successful prosecutions, Almy said.
Patrolmen “don’t have the experience or the time to interview the people that need to be interviewed in a serious case,” Almy said. “The more you have a detective in there, the more they anticipate what we [prosecutors] need. He will see the report a patrolman writes and say, ‘I know what we need.’ I won’t have to ask for it.”
Good report writing, a key element to police work, isn’t something Lincoln lacks, but experience is, said Assistant District Attorney Steve Burlock, who has handled Lincoln cases since July.
“Some of the officers are fairly new at their trade,” Burlock said, “but the other thing I can say, which is positive, is that they seem very well motivated. They want to do a good job. That’s important because in the long run, like in any other trade, you run into folks that are not well motivated and that’s another part of the problem. That’s not the case with these folks.”
Almy and Burlock credit Lawrence’s hiring of former East Millinocket patrolman David Cram in June 2011 and promoting him to detective in January with sharpening Lincoln’s attack on crime, particularly drug-related malfeasance. Cram’s position is paid for with a three-year grant.
Almy said he has seen two or three cases in the last month where Cram’s efforts have been helpful.
“Their reports are more responsive and they seem more interested in looking at more serious crimes,” Almy said.
“One of the things I have observed in Lincoln is a fair amount drug related activity with bath salts,” Burlock said. “It is my sense that having the detective position just for that category of crime has been very beneficial for them. They are big enough up there that a detective is a very logical addition to their department. Their detective is doing a good job and can’t help but help.”
Lawrence made several managerial moves that he said have helped Lincoln’s officers gain expertise and confidence. He promoted interim Sgt. Glenn Graef to a permanent sergeant’s post in May 2011, also assigning Graef to work a 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, Lawrence said.
With Lawrence and Cram working day shifts, Graef’s shift change gave Lincoln’s officers direct supervision during their busiest times, Lawrence said. Several previous police administrations hadn’t done that, leaving inexperienced officers to fend for themselves.
The shift change “fills a need. With a young department, you have young officers looking for assistance, a guide, a mentor, a person they can go to and trust for their answers,” said Lawrence, who was recently named Lincoln’s interim town manager.
“David’s experience is on gathering evidence and understanding the elements of a crime that need to be proven,” Lawrence said. “For awhile I was teaching this. David knew this and after a few weeks, he filled in for me. He started teaching and taking a little bit of that burden off of me.”
Lawrence said he didn’t begin to see improvement in police performance until June, when the department’s command structure had solidified and the officers started seeing the value of what they were being taught. Police had also begun attacking the root of most property crimes, the use and sale of illegal narcotics, and seeing results, he said.
“When we started attacking the bath salt issues and thefts and were still doing the patrol work we needed to, we saw the property crime problem and how it all interlinks,” Lawrence said. “We started getting search warrants and getting arrests.”
Today, Lincoln’s police are just about where they need to be, Lawrence said. They share information, run cases by one another for second opinions, and have a good sense of teamwork. Graef and Cram handle much of the department’s day-to-day operations and report reviewing, leaving Lawrence free to concentrate on individual issues and planning.
His next issue, he said, will likely be retaining his officers — keeping other, larger departments from luring them away.
“They are Type-A personalities. They are doing a great job,” Lawrence said.