COMMENTARY

Lewiston residents to police: Time to get tough on suspected criminals

A MDEA agent, left and Maine State Police Trooper Tom Pappas arrest a woman on Bartlett Street for drug possession recently during Operation Hot Spots.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
A MDEA agent, left and Maine State Police Trooper Tom Pappas arrest a woman on Bartlett Street for drug possession recently during Operation Hot Spots.
Posted Aug. 15, 2012, at 6:10 a.m.

I won’t lie to you. I felt bad for the singing lady and her smitten friend.

They came bobbing down Walnut Street in Lewiston at about 10 p.m. They were half-walking, half-dancing down the sidewalk. Hand-in-hand and singing a little. It had been a fun night at the bar, apparently and it was time to go home.

Good times. Except for the knot of a half dozen cops clogging the sidewalk between here and there. They wore shirts and windbreakers that announced ATF or MDEA in bright yellow letters. Their badges gleamed in the dingy downtown light. These were men (and one woman) of the law, no doubt about it.

The happy couple came to a stop on the sidewalk, tune dying on their lips. They greeted the cops with smiles but it was clear that this was an interruption to the merriment.

“Good evening,” one of the officers said. “Do either of you have warrants out? Are you on probation?”

In some parts of the city, it’s an odd question. On the lively end of Walnut Street it is not. The happy man and his lady knew what the cops were looking for, but they were confident they were in the clear.

“Not me,” said the still-smiling woman. “I haven’t even been arrested in two years.”

She sold me. If I was the one carrying a badge that night, I would have sent her on her way. But the policeman was not so trusting. He lifted a mic from his shirt collar and radioed in the particulars. Damn technology. It took less than a minute for the sad facts to come across the airwaves.

The woman didn’t have one warrant or even just two. There were three warrants filed in a local court for her arrest.

And so ended the glee of a night spent drinking in downtown Lewiston. The singing lady was handcuffed and taken to jail. Her lovelorn boyfriend stood a few feet away assuring her that he loved her and would see her when she was sprung. Then the cruiser pulled away, headed to the Androscoggin County Jail. The sad fellow moved on and so did the cops.

Another Friday night and Operation Hot Spots was grinding like a machine. I felt a bit of empathy for this woman and her lonely boyfriend but 90 percent of the criminals swept up in this rolling police movement provoke no such sympathy.

Men and women with pockets stuffed full of drugs for which they have no prescription. A guy with a loaded handgun walking up Pine Street. Men from Boston or New York who came to Lewiston to hide out from charges of drug dealing, shootings, robbery.

Operation Hot Spots has been sweeping up the kind of people that make it dangerous to walk the downtown streets at night. The kind of people you think about when you tell your daughter she can’t walk to the store by herself. The kind of people you imagine when you ponder the worst-case-scenario as you plot your course across Kennedy Park.

I’ve been working the night beat in Lewiston for 18 years now. I’ve seen a lot of police efforts come and go. Cop cards handed out to children around the municipal pool. Shiny medallions given to people who commit good deeds. Soft approaches to a hard problem. Good intentions, but when you got right down to it, they didn’t get a single felon off the streets and it was no less dangerous to walk the length of Pine Street after dark.

At a rather large meeting at the Community Center last month, the people who live and work downtown gathered with the cops to have their say. One of them stood up and said in a voice loud enough that he didn’t need a microphone: “You’ve handed out your little cards. You’ve had your little meetings. We’re sick of the friendly approach. We want to see criminals put behind bars where they belong.”

So far, dozens of those criminals have been provided accommodations at the county clink. The hoosegow, the gray bar hotel. Which means that in this summertime effort, the cops have been doing their jobs.

But what about the courts, that ultimate authority which picks up where the police leave off? What are they doing to maximize the street-cleaning efforts of Operation Hot Spots?

The man with the gun on Pine Street? A career felon. Sicced a dog on a police officer back in the 1990s. Been in all kinds of trouble since. This time, he was found with a loaded gun in an area populated by hundreds of people – many of them kids – at any given time. How did he fare? He was set free after just one day on $300 bail. Which means for at least one night, the singing lady with warrants was sleeping on a cot at the county jail while a more seasoned criminal with an apparent love of artillery was out walking among us.

You can draw your own conclusions, I imagine. You asked the police to start locking people up and they delivered. I guess now, someone needs to start asking the courts to chip in a little bit, too.

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