FARMINGTON — A large group of concerned citizens and college students gathered Tuesday night at the University of Maine at Farmington for a forum on crime in Franklin County.
“Has crime in Franklin County gotten worse in the past 10 years?” was the first question posed to five panelists including Farmington police Chief Jack Peck, Maine State Police Detective Randall Keaten, Assistant District Attorneys James Andrews and Andrew Robinson and a local psychiatrist, Dr. Art Dingley.
The answer, according to the panelists, was no, but there is a growing perception that “big-time crime is growing in the foothills,” Dingley said. That perception is fed by an increased use of prescription medications and criminal activity surrounding it.
While Peck said last year was one of the busiest in his 28-year career in law enforcement, “overall, the crime rate in Farmington has not increased and remained fairly steady,” he said.
Except for two homicides last year in Farmington, one an accident and the other a brutal murder, there had been no homicides since 1999, a year when there were also two, Peck said, recounting Amber Pond’s death and a stabbing death at Sherwood Apartments.
Keaten, who investigates major crimes in Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin counties, agreed that there is no sharp increase, no large spikes.
Recent home invasions are not something new, Robinson said, remembering two elderly women in Wilton who faced a home invasion several years ago and a death caused when two friends were drinking and one fell over a cliff, a similar tale to last June’s death of a University of Maine at Farmington graduate.
While crime happens randomly and can’t be predicted, there’s been a 10-year span without homicides and hopefully the next 10 will be the same, he said.
Recent crimes have not been perpetrated against strangers but against friends and neighbors, and that is the frightening aspect, Andrews said.
“There is a common thread,” Andrews said. That “people (legally) have high-power painkillers in their homes is not lost on the criminal (element).” Drug crime in the past was perpetrated against people with illegal drugs and didn’t affect most people, he said.
Peck agreed with Andrews, from what he’s seen in the past five years.
The game changed in a big way when opiate drugs came to town, Dingley said. They can easily be stolen from one’s grandmother, and drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Maine and across the country.
The use brings disruption to families and social values, he said.
While state legislation in 2006 changed laws on illegal possession of painkillers, making it a felony, Robinson said, the addict is thinking about the drug and not a felony conviction.
In the late 1990s, Farmington had a heroin group that brought the drug in from Connecticut and other states, but that has changed, with painkillers more readily available, he said.
Police officers agreed that bail for people repeating crimes can be very frustrating, but the assistant district attorneys explained how the court cannot afford to house everyone before trial. The system also works to improve offenders’ lives through what is called deferred dispositions, in which a person can adhere to bail conditions and have a charged reduced.
The effect of the poor economy on crime split the panelists, with some seeing no effect and others believing it must play a part.
During the Great Depression, when 25 percent of the population was without work, crime was down. In the 1960s, when the economy was good, crime went up, said Walter Hanstein, moderator for the Daily Bulldog-hosted said.
“Crime is opportunistic,” Robinson said, explaining how an increase in metal theft in Androscoggin County is creeping into Franklin County. People who see an opportunity to make money from cutting out a car radiator or taking pipes from vacant homes and recycling the metal are doing it.