The Bangor Police Department is investigating drug crimes more aggressively than it has in the past, in a move to arrest more of the local dealers police say are fueling chronic addiction and neighborhood problems.
The department has assigned the pair of officers who comprise its Special Enforcement Team to focus almost primarily on drug investigations — lengthy cases that beat cops don’t always have the time for while they juggle day-to-day police calls, Sgt. Wade Betters said.
The change, which has occurred gradually over the past two months, came in response to mounting pressure from city residents who have complained to police about disruptive criminal activity in their neighborhoods.
“We want to eradicate those neighborhood problems,” Betters said, and “stop the traffickers who are taking advantage of our addicted population.”
The new initiative comes at a time when the calls to confront an increasingly deadly drug crisis have focused away from enforcement and on increasing treatment options for users — many of whom resort to dealing drugs to support their own habits.
Jailing drug offenders, studies have shown, hasn’t proven to be an effective way to either fight drug crime or deter drug use. In Maine, just over half of adult drug offenders are arrested again within three years of being released from jail, according to 2013 study by the Maine Statistical Analysis Center.
And in a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that boosting arrests of hard drug users had no effect on the use of injection drugs, such as heroin. The study echoed others in concluding that the country’s ballooning jail population — which thanks to more aggressive drug enforcement has more than doubled since 1990, from 1.2 million to 2.3 million — negatively affects the health of users.
Still, local drug users frequently end up in jail. Sheriff Troy Morton has said the overwhelming majority of people who come through the overcrowded Penobscot County Jail either committed a crime to get drugs or while they were on drugs.
Bangor police made more than 200 drug arrests in the last year, said Betters, with “the lion’s share” for trafficking and furnishing.
“We don’t want to arrest users,” Betters said, in response to what the studies have shown. But city police can’t ignore the complaints of residents who are frustrated with drug-related activity in their neighborhoods — fights, thefts and suspicious activity, he said.
“We need help from everyone to help the user,” he said. “But in the meantime, if the users are contributing to dealers repeatedly coming here, we’re going to work awful hard to get the dealer out of the city, and out of the neighborhood.”
The department’s new policy uses the manpower of the department’s existing Special Enforcement Team. Going forward, the team will now primarily focus on drug crime, and pursue longer investigations aimed at arresting “the guy at the top,” Betters said.
Those efforts will augment the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, a multi-bureau state agency tasked with stopping drugs from flowing into Maine.
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