The Maine Department of Public Safety released data Wednesday showing that overall crime, including robbery and other violent crime, was down statewide in 2014 from the previous year, which mirrors national crime statistics.

Drug crimes continue to fuel much of the state’s criminal activity, but the number of robberies dropped 9 percent statewide from 335 in 2013 to 304 last year.

Dr. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said there are many factors that contribute to a drop in crime.

One is that police are getting smarter at what they do.

“We’re all using technology more, and police departments, many of them, are relying on data, oftentimes almost real-time data in terms of what type of crimes are happening where,” Fox said. “The more strategic you can be … the better you’re able to respond and control it.”

Police also benefit from increased use of surveillance video by businesses and homeowners as well as most people having handy access to a video camera in their cellphone, he said.

“It’s hard to commit an illegal act in a public place without being captured by video somewhere,” Fox said. “Certainly one of the most useful strategies for detectives investigating unsolved crimes is collecting whatever surveillance video is available.”

Fox also noted that America is aging and the fastest-growing segment of the population is those over age 50 — people who statistically commit far fewer crimes than people in their 20s. Maine has the oldest median age in the country and is getting older.

Incarceration also plays a role in cutting down crime. The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world — though Maine has one of the lowest rates in the country. Putting people in jail does cut down on crime, but it’s expensive, Fox said.

George Shaler, senior research associate at the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine, said economics is often cited when explaining crime trends. He noted the country — and Maine to a lesser extent — is recovering from the Great Recession. However, a clear understanding of why crime has increased or decreased requires in-depth analysis, he said.

DECLINE NOT NOTICED

In central Maine, sherriff department officials say they haven’t seen a noticable decrease in many types of crime.

In Franklin County, Sheriff Scott Nichols attributed the drop in property crime, such as burglaries, to new patrol techniques adopted by his department after he took the helm in 2012.

Deputies now conduct “aggressive” building check patrols on a list of more than 200 businesses, residences and seasonal camps that are in remote areas of the county and susceptible to theft and burglary. Patrol deputies on the day and night shifts are assigned buildings to check every day, either when a business is closed for the day or if the department knows a residence is unoccupied.

The elevated presence of deputies has helped dissuade potential burglaries, Nichols said.

“That was the whole intent of the program to begin with,” he added.

But in other types of crime, such as domestic violence calls, his department hasn’t seen a noticable decrease. Nichols said Franklin County deputies respond to at least two domestic violence calls a week. The calls don’t always result in an arrest. Calls about domestic violence and other interpersonal incidents such as assault are more frequent on the weekend, when “the alcohol is flowing,” Nichols said.

In next-door Somerset County, Chief Deputy James Ross said his perception is that crime hasn’t decreased as outlined by the Maine Department of Public Safety, but he did not have access to the department’s statistics to back up his guess.

“I know our guys are running as hard as they ever have,” Ross said.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said he had not had a chance to review the report, but based on anecdotal information, he doesn’t anticipate a significant difference from 2013.

“Most of the crimes are drug-driven,” Liberty said.

The trend over the past four years has been a spike in heroin, which Liberty said is “cheap and plentiful.”

“Most of the property crimes are people supporting their habits,” he said.

PORTLAND ROBBERIES UP

After seeing an overall decrease in robberies in 2014, Portland has experienced a surge in robberies over the first half of this year, including a recent spate in the Riverton area.

Portland had 52 robberies reported through Monday, and another two were reported Tuesday night. That’s a 44 percent increase over the 36 reported through July 20 of last year, according to statistics provided by the Portland Police Department.

Two men robbed the Family Dollar on Riverside Street at gunpoint Tuesday night, making off with cash. Nobody was injured. The robbery was similar to two earlier holdups in the area, though police can’t say for sure whether they are related. Police say they have only a rudimentary description of the suspects — two black men wearing hooded sweatshirts armed with guns.

Two similarly clad men, with their faces covered, robbed a couple at gunpoint July 15 in the parking lot of Tortilla Flat at 1871 Forest Ave. A police dog tracked the suspects to the Riverton Housing complex but then lost the trail. A similar-looking duo robbed a person May 13 in the Hannaford supermarket parking lot at 787 Riverside St.

“It’s too early to draw assumptions” about whether the crimes were committed by the same people, Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch said. “We do know they’re obviously close in geographic proximity and the description of suspects is similar although limited … there are similarities in the methods and even the directions they were fleeing towards.”

A separate report of a robbery Tuesday night on Popham Street appears unrelated and police have interviewed the alleged suspects and victim and have so far brought no charges, though it’s still under investigation.

PORTLAND REFLECTS STATE

Robberies aside, Portland saw a drop last year similar to that of the state’s, with overall crime down 18 percent, and nonviolent property crimes accounting for most of the decrease. But violent crimes also were down, by 3 percent from 2013 to 2014, and the number of robberies dropped from 81 to 62, or by 23 percent. The only violent crime that increased in that period was aggravated assault, from 78 to 94.

By July 20, 2013, Portland had 47 reported robberies — a crime in which someone takes or attempts to take property by force or threat of force, and that number dropped to 36 last year.

So far this year, it’s been a different story.

Often a few criminals are responsible for multiple crimes, and that may be the case with the recent robberies in the West End and Riverton, Malloch said. Police announced June 9 that they had responded to seven recent robberies, including a bank robbery, in which a gun or knife was used, most of them in the West End. Police said at the time they suspected the robberies were committed by people trying to get money for drugs.

“I know we’ve seen a decline in the robberies occurring in the West End, the street robberies. Those declined following our media attention to them along with our increased patrols,” Malloch said. The department also has increased patrols in the Riverton area. “We’ve focused a lot of resources on identifying those perpetrators,” he said.

Sochenda Mean, who works at Global Gas on Forest Avenue, said she hopes police catch the robbers soon because the incidents have raised concerns for employees of area businesses.

“For me, not so much. I don’t stay late at night,” she said. But her brother and a new employee do work nights.

Kacher Time, who works at a Gulf Station on Forest Avenue just north of Riverside Street, said he is not worried. His boss told him that if he is ever threatened and robbed to hand over the money, because his safety is more important.

A worker at Family Dollar declined to comment. Portland police ask that anyone with information about the robberies being investigated call 874-8575.

DRUGS ‘STILL THE DRIVING FORCE’

Statewide, crime decreased nearly 15 percent in 2014, the largest drop in the 40 years in which Maine has tabulated detailed crime numbers, the Department of Public Safety announced Wednesday.

Crime has dropped a combined 25 percent in the past two years.

“The past two years of decreasing crime numbers is encouraging, but also tempered with the growing drug abuse issue that all Maine law enforcement faces,” state Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said in a statement. “As hopeful as the numbers are, drugs are still the driving force for most of the crime in Maine.”

Drug arrests went up, from 5,559 arrests in 2013 to 5,801 in 2014.

The 27,987 crimes reported statewide in 2014 represent a crime rate of 21 offenses per 1,000 people in Maine, according to the public safety department. The national crime rate is 32 offenses per 1,000 population. The crime rate for violent crimes in Maine continues to be one offense per 1,000 people, compared to the national average of four per 1,000 people.

There were 22 homicides investigated statewide in 2014, three fewer than the previous year. There were 356 rape cases reported to law enforcement last year, three fewer than in 2013. Burglaries dropped by more than 22 percent, from 6,453 in 2013 to 5,009 in 2004. Aggravated assaults, which involved serious injury or the use of a weapon, decreased by nearly 5 percent, from 943 in 2013 to 900 in 2014.

Domestic violence assaults decreased by nearly 8 percent, from 5,487 in 2013 to 5,067 in 2014.

The Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and Portland Press Herald staff writer Gillian Graham contributed to this story. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.