May 20, 2018
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Portland using stats to curb crimes before they become a trend

Eric Zelz | BDN
Eric Zelz | BDN
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Lt. Gary Rogers of the Portland Police Department says crime statistics increasingly are being used to initiate a nearly real-time response to the community’s needs.

Portland police don’t typically look for trends over periods of several years, he said, but rather over recent weeks and months. The practice helps commanders assign more officers to a neighborhood where certain crimes are peaking.

“We want to be able to address crime as soon as we can,” Rogers told the Bangor Daily News. “If we see a high number of car break-ins in a particular neighborhood, for instance, there are certain things we can do to prevent those things from happening. It could just be a matter of having more officers more visibly on patrol in that area. Sooner or later the guy who breaks into cars is going to get caught. If we can get him sooner, he’s going to have committed [fewer] crimes.”

Reflecting that philosophy, one of Police Chief Michael J. Sauschuck’s first initiatives upon his appointment as chief in February was the creation of a Community Police Advisory Board. Its membership includes members of the local business and religious communities, educators, residents and youths reflecting the diversity of Portland’s neighborhoods.

Although that board is just getting rolling, it already has identified graffiti, youth connections and absentee landlord issues as initial priorities. The expectation is that the board will help the police department prioritize its enforcement and community policing efforts, as well as share information with neighborhoods about police strategies and operations.

Other crime-prevention initiatives include community policing centers in Parkside, West End, Midtown, Munjoy Hill and Portland Housing neighborhoods and “directed patrol” teams that target neighborhoods experiencing specific crime problems such as drug-dealing or prostitution. They work in the neighborhood, often undercover, until the crime problem is eliminated and then move on to another neighborhood to tackle its crime problems.

In a recent example of how those various initiatives are coordinated, Rogers cited a string of burglaries in the Old Port’s commercial district this winter.

“We made some arrests but the burglaries would continue,” Rogers said.

The Old Port burglaries came up for discussion at the department’s weekly meeting to flag recent crime trends and devise appropriate strategies to catch the criminals, he said. A community-policing officer was assigned to meet with business owners to alert them about the recent commercial break-ins. Pamphlets were distributed, encouraging people to report any suspicious activities in the Old Port shopping district, particularly after hours.

A break came on March 1 when patrol officers on the Old Port beat found an open door, Rogers said. They immediately called evidence technicians to the scene and the fingerprint evidence they recovered led to the arrest of a 53-year-old Portland man the next day on a charge of burglary.

The point of the story, Rogers said, isn’t only that fast work on processing evidence helped the Crime Reduction Unit make an arrest; it’s that a whole array of police resources and approaches immediately were put to work in the Old Port.

“The case could have been solved in another way,” Rogers said, noting an eyewitness could have reported something looking suspicious and that tip, instead of the fingerprints, could have led to the arrest.

Portland police officials, who are nearing the release of their official 2011 crime data, say they’re hoping these proactive prevention approaches lead to a reduction in crimes at a time when the still-struggling economy and rampant prescription drug abuse might push the crime numbers in the opposite direction.

Rogers said the force set a goal of reducing overall crime in the city by 5 percent in 2011. While the last of the figures are being crunched in anticipation of a release early next month, Rogers said he’s optimistic the police reached the milestone.

That would follow a recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace that Maine once again ranked as the most peaceful state in the country — based on a formula that heavily weighs crime and incarceration rates.

According to statistics reported by the Illinois-based Advameg Inc. and its website, Portland saw fewer cases of assault and arson in 2010 — 74 and 7, respectively — than at any point in the previous decade.

High numbers between 2000 and 2010 for those crimes came in 2005, when the city experienced 125 cases of assault, and 2008, a year when it saw 34 arsons.

Auto thefts declined annually from 2006 until 2010, according to city data, sliding from 193 in 2006 to just 76 in the last year for which numbers are officially available.

Drug use fuels robberies, murders

Some crimes in Portland steadily increased between 2000 and 2010, including robberies and murders. Advameg’s website tracked only 56 robberies at the beginning of the decade and 129 at the end, although 2010’s figure is down from a 2006 crest of 149 such crimes. There were no homicides in Portland in 2000, between one and three each year between 2001 and 2007, and four each in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, there were six.

Rogers said that robbery and murder figures in Portland can likely be traced back to increased drug use.

“It seems 15 years ago we were seeing bank robberies, but now we’re seeing pharmacy robberies,” he said.

Mark Rubin, a research associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service who helps compile and track crime numbers for the state of Maine, agreed with Rogers that drug use is tied to an increase in certain types of crimes.

“Ten years ago I think a majority of your drug arrests were for marijuana,” Rubin said. “Now you’re seeing more serious types of drugs. If you’re talking about drugs that are far more addictive in nature, you’re potentially seeing more crimes tied to those addictions.”

Theft, burglary and rape figures over the decade zigzagged in Portland, with no apparent trends. Thefts, for instance, numbered 2,120 in 2000, 2,547 in 2002, 2,332 in 2004, 2,709 in 2006, 2,157 in 2008 and 2,246 in 2010.

Rubin said that as Portland police have worked over time to perfect their week-to-week or month-to-month crime analyses in an effort to pinpoint where resources are most needed at any given time, it might have caused crime statistics to be unpredictable even as the city has become a safer place. He said having more police in targeted areas might mean crimes that would have gone unreported before are now showing up in the numbers.

“I know Portland is more aware of what’s happening in the city, using technology to identify hot spots of crime, so consequently there might be better enforcement,” Rubin said. “Portland police may focus more on covering the Old Port late in the night, for instance. If there are going to be more police in high crime areas, there may be more crimes in the statistics.”

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