LEWISTON — For the past 18 years, the Rev. Doug Taylor has ministered to the youngest, the poorest, the most downtrodden people in inner-city Lewiston. He lives among them, in a Bates Street duplex converted to serve as both his Jesus Party headquarters and his family's home. He knows the downtown, knows its people. Loves those people.
But the man of God also keeps a baseball bat under his bed and another behind his front door.
"It's not safe just to open up your door to anybody down here," he said. "I have healing scriptures from the Bible written all over one bat because if I have to hit somebody with it, I've committed to staying with them and praying until the ambulance comes."
Like many people in Lewiston, Taylor believes the city has grown increasingly dangerous over the years. His evidence: He hears gunshots so frequently that he no longer calls the police about them. When he sees someone breaking the law, he thinks long and hard before reporting them, fearful of retaliation. Some days, he doesn't feel safe just sitting outside on his porch.
"This is a tough place," Taylor said.
But there's evidence that Lewiston isn't nearly as tough as it used to be.
Reports of major crimes are down. Arrests for drugs, disorderly conduct, vandalism and liquor law violations have dropped over the years. Police started Operation Hot Spots this summer to crack down on the violence and vice Lewiston has become known for — and residents complain about — but police say they long ago stopped seeing the daily street fights and other problems that were so prevalent 20 years ago.
And while Taylor doesn't feel safe sitting on his porch some days, other downtown residents have no fear of being outside.
"I'm really fine. Like, I walk around all the time at night," said Sherie Blumenthal, who lives in a co-op on Maple Street. "And I'm not naive, either. I lived in a pretty crappy part of Columbus (Ohio) where legitimately I was afraid, for good reasons. I had friends who were mugged. Our apartment was broken into . . . . In my experience in six years in Lewiston, I've actually never had an encounter that made me really scared."
So is life in Lewiston safer or more dangerous? The answer may be somewhere in between.
A crime rate cut in half
Lewiston has long had a reputation for crime, violence, drugs and drunkenness. At least some part of that reputation was well-earned.
Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere remembers what the city was like when he joined the police force in 1990.
"On a summer night, we pretty much responded to an all-units fight on the dead-end of Knox Street pretty much every day right out of lineup at 4:30, 5 o'clock in the afternoon," he said. "There were times you couldn't even get in your car and check your car out (at the beginning of a shift) because you'd already be responding to a call; you'd be going up the street. It happened quite frequently."
That year, Lewiston had more than 2,500 reports of major crimes, including 21 of rape, 70 of aggravated assault, 563 of burglary and 1,712 of theft. And that was with a crime rate that was down 22 percent from five years earlier.
But as the years passed, something interesting happened: The crime rate continued to sink.
Lewiston's citywide crime rate, which is calculated using population and reports of eight major crimes, is now half what it was 1985, a high year for crime in the city. In 2010 it reached its lowest point since police started keeping track more than 30 years before. Although the crime rate bumped up in 2011, according to Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, it still remains lower than Maine's other major cities, including Portland, Bangor, Augusta and neighboring Auburn. (Auburn Police Chief Phil Crowell said his city's crime rate skews higher because Auburn contains a lot of retail, and shoplifting and other property crimes are factored into the rate.)
Violent crime reports dropped 66 percent, from 230 in 1985 to 78 in 2011. Property crime reports went down about 56 percent, from nearly 3,000 reports in 1985 to about 1,300 in 2011. Arrests dropped about 32 percent, from nearly 3,700 in 2001 to about 2,500 in 2010, according to Uniform Crime Reporting statistics provided by the state. Preliminary numbers from the Lewiston Police Department show about 2,280 arrests in 2011.
That might not surprise some in Lewiston. They say they feel safe.
"The nights are pretty quiet," said George "Flip" Gosselin, who bought Dee's Market and Deli on Blake Street with his wife about eight years ago. "The daytimes are pretty quiet. Not like I was told when I thought about moving here . . . that there were gangs of kids walking the streets and you're going to get robbed and it's bad." He said he's never seen a gang and has never been robbed. "It seems for the most part not too bad."
Others have a hard time believing there is less crime.
"It's not safe," said Mohamed Farah, who has lived in the city for seven years and is president of the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston/Auburn Maine. He is concerned about drugs, drinking and bad influences on the Somali community's young people.
Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, who was a police officer in the city from 1977 to 2000, declined to comment for this story.
'Is this worth getting involved in?'
Lewiston's overall crime-rate drop is not uncommon. Crime has decreased nationwide over the past 20 years in a trend many experts struggle to explain. Theories abound, including that more sophisticated policing and harsher prison sentences have kept criminals off the street, changes in gun laws have reduced violence, the good economy of the late 1990s and early- to mid-2000s lowered people's desire to steal or assault others, and a quirk of America's demographics resulted in a population simply less likely to commit crime.
Bussiere can't explain Lewiston's drop any more than experts can explain the national trend, though he believes age is likely one factor. Lewiston's population, like the rest of Maine, has historically skewed older, and middle-aged adults are less likely than teenagers and young adults to commit some crimes.
Lewiston's demographics, though, have changed in recent years as younger families and more children move into the city. Knowing that, Lewiston police expected to see the crime rate climb. Instead, it dropped further, hitting a point in 2010 that Bussiere calls the "low-water mark."
The crime rate only started to creep up in 2011, going from 31.69 people per 1,000 reporting a major crime to 38.03.
"During yearly staff meetings, we were looking at the annual statistics (and) saying, 'It can't continue to go down,'" he said. "We were off by a couple of years, but as it turns out, we're starting to be right."
The crimes that went up in 2011: burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft. Theft and motor vehicle theft are traditionally young people's crimes.
The Rev. Taylor believes he knows why the crime rate has gone down: Residents aren't reporting crimes.
"I think people get numbed to the situation in which they live," he said. "I think they become overwhelmed with it all, to be honest with you. I think they think this is just the way it is and the way it's going to be and we just have to get used to it. Some people lose hope."
Taylor said he's never lost hope, but he admits he doesn't call the police for every problem he sees. He ignores gunshots and fights, and he may turn away from other crimes unless they involve a child, an elderly person or a woman in trouble. He doesn't want to call the police so often that they start to ignore him, he said. Plus, he has to think of his own family's safety.
"You have to live next to these people after you call the police on them," he said. "So you have to look out your window and within a second think, 'Should I get involved or should I not get involved? Is this worth getting involved in?'"
But Bussiere doesn't believe the crime rate has dropped because fewer people are reporting. The crime rate involves major offenses, he said, and those have victims who want or need police help.
"How can you not report an arson?" he said. "If you're a store clerk, you can't not report that you were robbed, because your manager's going to ask you why there's $100 less in the till."
So far, Lewiston's 2012 crime rate is on track to be about the same or slightly higher than 2011's. The rate skyrocketed in February, March, April and May — due in part, Bussiere believes, to record warm temperatures. It fell in June, July, August and September.
Numbers show major crimes in the downtown, specifically — a half-mile radius around Kennedy Park — have gone up and down since 2007, the earliest year such numbers are available. There were fewer reports of rape and motor vehicle theft in 2011 than there were in 2007. There were more reports of burglary and theft. In total, there were 499 major crimes reported in that area in 2007, with 559 reported in 2011. In the intervening years, between 433 and 511 major crimes were reported, with no real trend up or down.
It is unclear whether the population grew or shrank during those years, but the 2000 U.S. Census lists 19,212 people living within a mile of City Hall, which is across from Kennedy Park; and 19,525 residents in 2010.
But while the statistics show the city overall to be safer than it used to be and downtown crimes fluctuating in recent years, even police believe numbers only tell part of the story.
Still fearful, despite the data
Those downtown residents who say they feel safe talk about children playing in Kennedy Park where drug dealers once did business and drinkers liked to hang out. They talk about walking through their neighborhood at any hour without fear and chatting with their neighbors along the way. They talk about downtown improvements, such as the B-Street Community Center, new elderly housing units, subsidized condos and a growing revitalization of Lisbon Street.
But those residents who don't feel safe talk about out-of-state cars cruising the streets in connection to, they assume, drug deals. They talk about men walking drunk down the sidewalk and prostitutes hanging around and people yelling at other people. They talk about seeing someone carrying a gun. They talk about neighborhood problems that aren't among the eight major crimes that make up the crime rate but still affect the quality of their lives.
Last spring, there were three shootings downtown. During one, someone was shot.
"We had a meeting and said, 'Listen, we can't have this. We have to spend more time in the downtown area,'" Bussiere said. "Our resources are well-based in the downtown as it is, but we have to do more. We have to be proactive and we need to get out on the streets more and we have to do it with high visibility and with more, different partners."
Lewiston police teamed with the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, several federal agencies, area police departments and others to come up with a plan to further clean up the downtown. Over the summer, the Lewiston Police Department, with help from other law enforcement agencies, held sweeps throughout the inner city, arresting people for outstanding warrants, drug possession, prostitution, public drinking and other crimes that aren't factored into the crime rate.
They dubbed it "Operation Hot Spots."
Initially, some involved in the effort thought residents wouldn't like the increased police presence. Bussiere thought they would.
He was right.
About 150 people showed up to a community meeting in July to talk about Operation Hot Spots. Most encouraged the police to do more — put more plain-clothes officers on the street, focus on drug dealers, focus on prostitutes, use K-9s more often.
"They gave us an earful," Bussiere said.
And he said he understands why. There may be fewer thefts, assaults and fights in the streets, he said, but that doesn't mean everyone feels safe.
"If you don't sweat the small stuff, if you're worried just about the big stuff, it has a tendency to creep up on you and grow further," he said. "For a family on a third story of an apartment building, their biggest concern might be the fact that the people on the first floor are hanging out out front, drinking at all hours of the day and night and making noise. ... For that family, their biggest issue is what's going on at that first floor because their kids have to walk up and down that flight of stairs to go to school every day. That is their perceived threat."
U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II has been involved in the partnership. A Lewiston native, he wanted to help his hometown.
Delahanty believes the program, with its regular sweeps and more visible police presence, has so far done two things: scared away people up to no good and made residents feel more secure.
"It's a conscious awareness that the police are out there," he said. "The whole idea is to make it a safer neighborhood for the people who are living there."
The spring and summer sweeps led to at least one federal case, a felon in possession of a firearm.
Operation Hot Spots hasn't been entirely popular with residents. Some who feel unsafe also complain that police have targeted the wrong people — them.
"I can't even sit on my porch anymore," said Cathy Mercier, who lives on Walnut Street. "The police are always stopping by, telling me I need to leave and whatever. Which is messed up because, you know, I live here. I should be able to sit on my porch."
But Operation Hot Spots is popular enough that police plan to continue. They will hold a second community meeting from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at Longley Elementary School.
For now, residents who feel safe say they hope the crime rate will stay low. They love the city and want to see its reputation improve.
"People believing that downtown is a much worse place than it actually is, is another big challenge that hurts the people downtown. But I think it also hurts Lewiston in general," said Craig Saddlemire, who is a member of the City Council and lives in the same Maple Street co-op as Blumenthal.
Those who don't always feel safe hope to see a drop in the crimes they're concerned about, as well as in the crime rate overall. Because they love the city, too.
"This is a very dangerous place," Taylor said. "It's very dysfunctional; it's very dirty here, but at the same time, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. This is home."
Sherie Blumenthal, Maple Street
Sherie Blumenthal has lived in Lewiston for six years, on Frye Street, Spruce Street and now in a co-op on Maple Street. She said she's never felt unsafe in the city
"I've definitely broken up some fights between kids before, over the years. I would say it's been a couple years since that happened," she said. "I really need to be clear that I do not associate that with any kind of gang activity. I know there's a misnomer and a misconception. It's not gangs; it's just kids. There are a lot of kids. There's little space. There's little to do. It's easy to fight."
Blumenthal grew up in New York, both inside and outside Queens. She moved to Columbus, Ohio, then to Lewiston as an AmeriCorps volunteer. She currently works with St. Mary's Health System's Lots to Gardens program.
In Lewiston, she said, she's happy to have found diversity, neighborhoods filled with children and a developing downtown. She's also aware of the city's not-so-happy side, including poverty, but those aspects don't change her feelings about Lewiston.
"I think that people have a vision of what a vibrant community looks like and sometimes that vision doesn't include poor people. It really doesn't. And it doesn't include people different from them," she said.
Blumenthal is OK with the increased police sweeps, but she'd also like to see more industry come to the area. Jobs, she said, allow people to earn a living without having to resort to criminal activities, like selling drugs.
"Lewiston could be vulnerable for something like that," she said. "There are a lot of people in need here who can be convinced of or decide to make bad choices because their choices are limited."
Mohamed Farah, Strawberry Avenue
Mohamed Farah, president of the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston/Auburn Maine, has lived in Lewiston for seven years. Although he doesn't live in the downtown, he works with families who do.
And he worries about them a lot.
"I said, 'Here is a safe place that you can grow your family,'" Farah said. "But now it is different."
He said he sees out-of-state people coming to the city to sell drugs. He sees crime. He's greatly concerned about bad influences on the Somali community's young people.
The city has changed for the worse, he said. He wishes it would change back for the better.
"Less safe than 2005," he said. "More suffering."
Robert Alimandi, Pierce Street
Robert Alimandi has lived in downtown Lewiston for about 30 years. He calls his current location "the worst street in the city."
He doesn't like the Somali families who have moved into the area. And he's heard about people carrying guns and knives, and that makes the area feel like it's getting dangerous.
"I always lock my door," he said.
The retired shoe-cutter doesn't believe there's anything more police could do to make him feel safer. He'd like to see a neighborhood watch set up, though. And he'd like some of his Somali neighbors to move out.
"This street wasn't like this until they moved in here. Not at all. It was real nice. Families got along. Now? It ain't the same," he said. "We can't understand them. Of course, some people say I'm prejudiced, but what are you going to do?"
Jessica Golder, Blake Street
Jessica Golder lives on Blake Street with her three children and her partner in a subsidized townhouse-style condo she bought seven years ago.
She believes her street is safer now than it was when she moved in, though she feels crime has gone up and down over the years. When she sees people doing something they shouldn't — throwing beer bottles, fighting, yelling swear words — she doesn't get scared. She gets angry. And she's not shy about telling those people to knock it off.
"Some people have called me 'The Warden,'" Golder said. "I worked here at this store (Dee's Market and Deli) for a while. Almost two years. So people in this neighborhood know me and they know that I don't care if there's 10 of you or one, this is my house. I bought that condo. I will be here for a long time. So I want to make sure it's the way it should be for my kids."
She said she's worked with the resource officers stationed at the B-Street Community Center and they've been responsive. But she hasn't seen daily patrols down Blake Street, and she believes that wouldn't be a bad idea.
"Sometimes they come through here so fast that they don't see the little things," she said.