AUGUSTA — Residents who gathered at Mill Park for Thursday’s forum on a program Augusta police launched last year to crack down on high crime areas believe it will make their city safer.

“It’s definitely nice to know they’re working hard for us and they’re trying to clean up Augusta,” said Augusta’s Carrie Davila, who attended the meeting with her two young children and her mother. “They’re making it safer for the kids.”

The city has run four hot spots since September 2014, including three since May. Modeled on a program Lewiston police have used for the past couple of years, Project Hot Spot was created to target specific areas known for having higher crime rates. The hot spots are designed partly to make life uncomfortable for criminals.

“It’s solving the problem and getting rid of the problem,” Deputy Chief Jared Mills told the couple of dozen people who gathered for the meeting. “Let’s make their lives as difficult as possible and get them out of here.”

There is some indication that criminals are getting the message, Mills said.

“Whatever the reason, we’re down on calls for major crime this summer,” he said.

Each one-day enforcement effort includes multiple agencies, such as the Maine State Police, Probation and Parole, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service. City code enforcement and housing officials also work with the team. Each hot spot includes warrant and probation checks and confirming addresses of sex offenders, but police say the most important component is the interaction with residents and the information on crime activity they provide.

“We’re talking to the public and asking what are the issues in their area,” Mills said. “The community is great with that.”

Lt. Christopher Massey, who leads the department’s investigative division, opened the meeting by giving a brief overview of the program and inviting the public to provide input either in the open forum or by speaking to one of the several officers who attended. Massey said the areas targeted for the hot spots thus far, which includes the areas around Water Street and Northern Avenue, were selected because historically they have tended to elicit the most complaints of criminal activity, particularly violent crime.

“The whole city is seeing that, but we were looking at where we could deploy our resources and make a difference,” Massey said.

Most of the residents who spoke during Thursday’s meeting, which lasted less than an hour, sought more information about the program and drug trends in the city. Nobody spoke out against the hot spots program.

“I think it’s a really good beginning,” resident Robin Miller said.

Gina Lomonaco, who owns a gymnasium on Water Street, said the biggest difference she has seen has come not as a result of the hot spots but from officers assigned to walk the downtown street. City councilors last year provided additional funding to increase the number of foot patrols in the area.

“It seems like those are the days we have less people coming to the downtown drunk and that kind of thing,” Lomonaco said. “It changes things a little bit.”

Drugs, particularly heroin, which Mills described as cheap and plentiful, is driving much of the criminal activity in the city. Communities around the state are seeing an increase in heroin use and overdoses. Augusta has not been immune to that trend, Chief Robert Gregoire said. He said there were a dozen overdoses in the city between Aug. 10 and Sept. 10. Another four have been reported in the past week.

“People are overdosing on their lunch break,” Gregoire said. “It’s prevalent throughout the community.”

The department is in the process of launching the “angel” program, which is designed to help those dealing with addiction. Modeled on a program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, people seeking help for their opiate addiction can go to the Police Department, turn over any drugs and paraphernalia, and be paired with an “angel” who guides the person through rehabilitation.

“If you come to us and you want help, we’ll help you to the best of our ability,” said Massey, who helped develop the hot spot and angel programs.

But residents face other problems, such as speeding and littering, that Gregoire said hurt their quality of life. He urged people to tell the police about those problems as well.

“Not everyone is faced with drugs,” Gregoire said. “There are quality-of-life issues. We want to see if we can do things that solve these problems from the neighborhood.”

The pleas to contact police about suspicious activity were echoed throughout the meeting. Mills urged residents who see suspicious behavior to record as much detail as possible, including the time, vehicle registration numbers, descriptions of those involved and the vehicles, and the activity that roused suspicion. Even if police do not respond immediately to that information, Mills said, it will not be ignored and could prove vital in an investigation.

“Sometimes it seems like we’re not doing anything,” Mills said. “These cases do take time. We want to prosecute these cases.”

Gregoire said Water Street used to be vibrant with activity and commerce, but it has struggled in more recent years with increased crime. Gregoire said the street can return to what it once was, but it will take the community’s help to get there.

“If you see something, say something,” Gregoire said. “If we work together, we can make this a better community.”

To contact Augusta police, call 626-2370. To leave an anonymous tip, call 620-8009.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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