This is the first of two parts.
LEWISTON — On paper, so far in 2018, the city of Lewiston is experiencing its lowest crime rate in the past 24 years.
Rapes, robberies, arson and motor vehicle thefts are all down, markedly.
But the numbers — which look at eight major crimes — don’t consider the tension and unease here after a pair of homicides inside of a month.
They don’t consider the rumors, including that police purposely didn’t make an arrest in the first death because of the assailant’s ethnicity and that new poles installed by Public Works along Ash Street to test LED lights is a new way to spy on downtown residents.
And the numbers don’t consider drug arrests, up almost 50 percent year-over-year, or the gang activity and troubling calls that don’t end in cuffs.
So far this year, there have been 11 reports of shots fired in Lewiston, up from seven for all of 2017. Last month, three officers were fired upon on Winter Street in a little-noticed incident. There’s a warrant out. Police are still looking for the shooter.
On Thursday, police responded to the latest report of a shot fired on Bradley Street and seized a pistol.
All in a city with its lowest crime rate in a quarter-century, which might, any other year, be cause for celebration.
“I think that a lot of it is we’re all so connected on social media now, so we hear more of the stories and then we hear other people retelling the stories,” said Heidi Sawyer, a city booster who runs the community Facebook page “Lewiston Rocks.” “One of them could have multiple videos, so it just feels like it’s a lot more.”
Police Chief Brian O’Malley said he understands the anxiety. There hadn’t been a homicide in Lewiston since 2014, then, within weeks of each other this summer, a woman was brutally stabbed outside a laundromat in broad daylight and a man died after a brawl outside Kennedy Park where witnesses said he was beaten with a brick.
“I know part of it is state police haven’t solved the first murder,” O’Malley said this week. “Anytime you have an unsolved homicide in the community, it makes everyone feel anxious and tense. We all want a resolution to that.”
He also chalks up some of the tension to onlookers’ chatter.
“People outside the community are commenting on what’s going on right now,” he said. “As I look out my window right now (onto Kennedy Park), I see a bunch of kids playing basketball, people sitting under trees, a bunch of kids in the wading pool, people in the skate park. I don’t see roving gangs of anybody with sticks and bottles attacking people. I don’t see that.”
Through July of last year, there had been nine reports of rape in the city. Through July of this year, four.
Through July of last year, 16 robberies. Through July of this year, 11.
Through July of last year, 86 burglaries. Through July of this year, 44.
This time last year, the city was looking at a crime rate of 22.34 incidents per 1,000 people. In 2018 to date, it’s 16.2, according to numbers provided by the Lewiston Police Department.
Since 1995, the city has had a year-end crime rate high of 62.8 — in 1995, a year with three murders — and a low of 21.78, in 2016. The stats, usually compiled and released with a two-year delay by the Maine State Police, are often viewed as a way to measure one community’s relative safety against another.
Members of the Lewiston Police Department say 2018’s local crime rate stats — while showing a better-than-average year — aren’t telling the whole story. They don’t often account for fights, shots fired or other violence that either isn’t reported or doesn’t result in charges.
Police Detective Tyler Michaud said the crime stats leave out a majority of what the department is dealing with: drug cases.
Lewiston police have made 78 drug arrests so far in 2018 compared to 53 during the same period last year, and that doesn’t include arrests made here by state or federal drug enforcement agencies.
Michaud, like other officers who spoke to the Sun Journal recently, said the majority of the recent violence in Lewiston can be attributed to gang members coming to the city with drugs from other states, some from as far away as California.
The gang names are familiar: Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Vice Lords.
Michaud, who serves on the FBI’s southern Maine gang task force, says the gang presence doesn’t mean the public should be fearful of roaming gangs in the streets. He said it is small pockets of gang-affiliated people who find they can sell drugs in the area for more money, and more easily slip through law enforcement.
“It’s a problem that’s been growing for a couple of years now, where we now have experienced gang members coming up here,” he said. “They may not be bringing the whole gang with them, but they’re bringing the gang system of operation and injecting that into our area.”
He said that while working on a case involving a known gang member from Hartford, Connecticut, the suspect told him he came to Lewiston because there were fewer police officers. Others, Michaud said, might just like that it’s a smaller, more isolated community, ironically attracted by the same quality of life that draws other people.
Michaud also has an office in Portland. He says gang activity there differs simply because it’s spread out over the greater Portland area.
“I don’t know if anyone else in the state has our version of the condensed downtown,” he said. “It’s sort of our own little world down here.”
Cpl. Jason Johnson said the availability of apartments here contributes to the ease of doing business: If one apartment gets too hot, it’s on to the next.
“They literally don’t move far,” Johnson said. “They go from Horton Street to Blake Street, from Blake Street to Jefferson Street.”
Michaud believes a good portion of the violence police are seeing downtown is among gang members.
“No one wants to say we have a gang problem, but the truth of the matter is, we’re starting to,” he said.
When asked about the two murders within a month’s time, Michaud referred to them as the anomalies, which, coupled with the drug and gang-related violence, have painted a violent landscape this summer.
“We’ve sort of had a perfect storm of having all that happen,” he said. “I don’t know if the shootings would be getting the same attention that they would without the murders.”
Patrol officer Nick Wiers, a Lewiston native who has patrolled downtown for seven years, believes that despite the positive crime stats, the overall atmosphere downtown is “by far the worst it’s ever been.”
He says it has nothing to do with one or two recent incidents, but rather a host of department issues, such as being short-staffed and handling calls that require hours of paperwork, preventing law enforcement from doing its job, taking time away from being out in the community doing proactive police work.
“It doesn’t allow us to go out and play ball with the kids across the street,” he said. “It doesn’t allow us to actively seek drug dealers or prostitutes in the area. Because we can’t do those sorts of things, I think you’re seeing that uptick in gang members moving here. I think we have very big-city problems, but we don’t have big-city funding or resources.”
There are also the usual — and unusual — incidents.
Last week, two officers were attacked by a man who said he wanted to “kill and eat his mother.”
“Stuff like that goes on all the time,” Wiers said.
Cpl. Eugene Kavanagh, on the force here for 20 years and an instructor at Central Maine Community College, said the aftermath of Donald Giusti’s death, widely reported by witnesses to have involved a brawl with immigrant youths, may have brought simmering racial tensions to the surface.
He bristles at the idea spread over social media that it’s tension police had long ignored.
“My response to that is anybody can say what they want on Facebook because they’re not saying it to anyone’s face, so that’s a cowardly way to do it,” Kavanagh said.
A week after the homicide, a man in Kennedy Park insisted that a specific officer told him police had identified a suspect but weren’t making an arrest because the person was Somali.
“Later on in the afternoon, I saw the same person, and the officer (whom the man had named) was eight steps behind me,” Kavanagh said. “And I said, ‘Hey, remember earlier this morning you were saying …’ Then he starts backtracking, ‘Well, no, I heard you said that.’ (I responded), ‘You just told me you heard it from him, point-blank from his mouth.’
“In the morning, he had 15-20 people who could hear every single word he said,” Kavanagh said. “They go tell two people, and they tell two people — that’s why we have some of the problems. It was ludicrous.”
Johnson, on the Lewiston force for 10 years, doesn’t believe it’s racial tension so much as cultural.
“It’s a lack of understanding how each culture lives,” he said. “I think if we took 7,000 rednecks from somewhere and shipped them in here, we would have the same amount of problems. People don’t understand each other, and instead of taking a moment to understand each other, they just as soon spit in each other’s eye.”
Facebook pages like “Maine scanner alerts uncensored,” which purports to deliver “important information about breaking news,” fan the online flames.
On July 15, it reported a “group of somalians (sic) jumped a white male and shot at him 12-29 times” on Horton Street.
“I can tell you we have no indication anybody of Somali descent was involved,” Lt. David St. Pierre said.
Nor were 12 to 29 shots fired; it was closer to six, he said.
On July 18, another post from that Facebook page reported that a gang of Somali men jumped two men and a woman near the police station at night, the fight turning so bad that state troopers responded and suspects fled.
In reality, when police responded to a man acting erratically, and the man and his buddy decided to fight the police, it led to a trooper-free scuffle and arrest.
“(The Facebook post) nowhere near reflects what actually happened,” said St. Pierre. “There were no Somalis involved, no people of color, there were two white guys, one from Portland, one from Wales. It just breeds ill will and bad feelings and bias that might normally not even be there for the public. They’re like, ‘Oh, again!'”
He added, “This person clearly, whoever posted this, must have some animosity toward Somalis and feels the need to wind people up further, which breeds hatred, and that’s my concern.”
Michaud said he sees “race-baiting” happening on social media daily. He said if people have racist beliefs, they will exploit a few incidents as affirmation. In reality, he said, the Lewiston residents they find involved in drug- and gang-related activity are a diverse group.
“I don’t think the heightened tension has anything to do with race,” Wiers said. “I think it has to do with the influx of players coming into the city.”
“Anyone can just hide behind a screen and type away,” Wiers said of social media. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s not correct information, and people believe it. They see it on Facebook or YouTube and all of a sudden it’s gospel.”
What about the rumor that the new lights on Ash Street are somehow being used to watch or listen to residents?
“Totally BS,” said Dave Jones, director of Lewiston Public Works.
The city has to replace 700 streetlights and they’re testing different LED bulbs for color and brightness, he said. They went up about two weeks ago.
With the community on edge, a growing number of people are working to quell the fears downtown. They want Lewiston to come together to heal following the two deaths, and they’re confident it can happen despite negativity in the air this summer.
Melissa Dunn, a well-known community organizer who often works on tenants’ rights issues, knew there would be tension downtown following the events that led to Donald Giusti’s death near Kennedy Park.
While Giusti was still in the hospital, she and a group of people went into the park to talk to people — not about what they might’ve seen that night, but what they were feeling.
She also saw people start to single out specific ethnic groups. Dunn believes some local media reporting on the violence has given people a platform — mostly on social media — to air racist views. But she’s seen confrontations in the park as well. In response, members of the Somali community stood alongside Giusti’s family during the first rally to express solidarity and denounce further violence.
“I think the underlining thing is that there is a different healing process for folks,” she said. “People in the downtown, we’re tight-knit, anyway. We care for one another. The narrative that’s been painted about poor people downtown is the exact opposite of what happens here.”
People — organizing under Lewiston United for Peace and Hope — who held the rally following Giusti’s death, also held a vigil and peace march downtown following Kimberly Dobbie’s stabbing. They held a community potluck dinner last week.
During the peace march, downtown neighbors walked each street where recent violence has taken place — starting on Knox Street and ending at Sabattus Street, where the group joined hands. They also stopped at Walnut and Horton streets, where shots were fired days before.
Dunn takes issue with some of the ways Lewiston police have characterized recent incidents. She said even using the term “outsiders” to describe suspects can evoke anti-immigrant sentiment, even if it’s meant to convey gang members from other states.
“They’re really isolated incidents in the scale of things that happen downtown,” she said, referring to the homicides. “I think what’s happening here is the result of resources being taken away.”
Jim Thompson, Giusti’s uncle who has served as a family spokesman, has continued efforts to bring the community together, even as his family still searches for answers.
The family gets regular updates on the investigation by Maine State Police, but little progress is reported. They are told that there are persons of interest, but there were a lot of people involved, he said.
In the meantime, Thompson has stood alongside members of the immigrant community. He spoke to kids at the Root Cellar and to the crowd at the World Refugee Day celebration last week in Simard-Payne Memorial Park.
Thompson and his brother, Giusti’s father, will also be involved in the “Peace in the Park” initiative that will place community safety volunteers in Kennedy Park, aimed at building relationships, and if needed, de-escalating potential conflicts.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to stop it altogether, but if we can make a difference in a few people’s lives, then it’s worth it,” he said.
While he feels positive about his interactions with police, Thompson said he’s disappointed that the family hasn’t heard from other city officials about his nephew’s death. He’s surprised there haven’t been condolences from the mayor. He also believes the city should be doing more to ease the tension.
“We’re trying to do all these little things to try to ease the violence and they haven’t come out with anything,” he said. “They should be showing their faces in the community.”
Mayor Shane Bouchard said the Police Department is in charge and the city is “doing a lot already.”
City administration and police have worked with community organizations on the Peace in the Park planning and have other long-term efforts still in the works, he said.
Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, who is organizing Peace in the Park, said training sessions with human rights educator Steve Wessler will begin next week. They already have 20 volunteers on board, half from the new Mainers community.
She said the amount of interest is encouraging. People are taking ownership of their community, she said, and many are hoping it will spawn other events in which neighbors from different backgrounds can share a meal.
“They’re saying this is our community, and no one wants to live in tension and violence,” she said.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, an impromptu community cleanup took place this week in the park and surrounding streets. Photos on social media showed a number of young children taking part. Another is already being planned.
Thompson, a Salvation Army volunteer, says he tries to see the good in everyone. He said it leads to family members telling him the mentality could come back to hurt him.
“They tell me, ‘You’ve got to be careful though, Jim,'” he said. “I tell them, ‘If you’re not looking for the good, then all you’re going to see is the bad.'”
Next week: Lewiston police talk about the city’s recent violence, racial tension, gang violence and the frustrations and challenges of the job.