AUGUSTA — City officials are zeroing in on plans aimed at drawing greater public participation in cracking down on property crimes.

The ideas, generated at a crime forum at City Center, include using social media, such as Facebook, to provide a direct line of communication between police and residents; establishing more neighborhood watch programs and a poster campaign urging residents to help.

“We rely on the community to assist us and be an extra set of eyes and ears,” Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire told about 30 people who gathered for the forum on Thursday. “It’s easier for us to check on something and find out it’s nothing than to have it turn into something later on. People need to be suspicious.”

The forum, held at the urging of City Councilor Darek Grant, was billed as an opportunity to talk about crime trends and for residents to offer their input in how to respond.

“People are tired of it,” Grant said. “We’re all struggling right now and the last we ever want is to be a victim of a crime.”

Mayor William Stokes, who also serves as the state’s deputy attorney general in charge of the criminal division, said violent crimes have remained fairly static across the state, but property crimes, such as burglaries, are on the rise. There also has been a marked increase in pharmacy robberies, he said. Stokes believes the increase can be attributed to the escalating problem of prescription drug abuse.

“We are not unique in terms of what’s going on in the state,” Stokes said. “A lot of what is driving things up is the prescription drug abuse epidemic.”

The trend started in Washington County more than a decade ago and has spread across the state. Maine is now first per-capita in prescription drug abuse, Stokes said.

The result is not only a jump in property crime but Maine now averages about 165 overdose deaths per year, Stokes said.

Augusta resident Larry Robinson Handley said doctors are at least partially to blame for the abuse epidemic. Narcotics, such as oxycodone, are handed out much too easily, Handley said. The prescription drug abuse problem extends beyond career criminals to honor students and career professionals, he said.

“I’ve seen it explode more than street drugs,” he said. “It seems like the hospitals and doctors have become the new drug dealers.”

Stokes said there need to more treatment options and better education for abusers and doctors.

“I think it has to be a combination approach,” he said. “I don’t believe we can prosecute our way out of this. We can’t build enough prisons to incarcerate the people addicted to prescription drugs and illegal drugs.”

Gregoire said the city began seeing an increase in property crimes about two years ago. For a short period before Christmas, the city was averaging one home burglary per day during weekday hours. The number has now dropped to one or two per week. The city averages about 600 motor vehicle burglaries per year.

“People are still trusting,” he said. “They leave their vehicles unlocked.”

Another complicating factor is that the characteristics of the average criminal are changing, Gregoire said. Sophisticated theft rings move from city to city, taking thousands of dollars of merchandise in just a few minutes. Gregoire said thieves have become much more transient and Augusta, a service center for the region, is an attractive target.

“People come here to shop, people come here to eat and people come here to steal,” Gregoire said. “The same people who come here go to Waterville, Auburn, Bangor and Portland. That’s what they do for a living.”

Other types of crime that lead to quick cash, like metal thefts and Internet scams, also are on the rise.

“People are looking for new and different ways to make money,” Gregoire said. “Once something gets noticed they try something else.”

Gregoire said police have tried to respond to the trends by having directed patrols that focus on a particular area for a period and then move to another section of the city. The city’s website offers avenues for providing information and police are developing policies aimed at using social media to provide an interactive platform for residents to provide information. Police officials are set to meet with a vendor next week about setting up an online crime map that would display the types of crimes and where they are occurring.

Residents also can take steps beyond keeping an eye out for suspicious activities. Locking doors and creating clear lines of visions around your home would also serve to deter would-be burglars, police said.

“Anything you can do to make it harder for them, to help deter them to go somewhere else,” Gregoire said.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]


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