LEWISTON — My, how Operation Hot Spots has grown.
Once a hyper-local effort involving Lewiston police and a few area agencies, the operation has evolved into something coveted by law enforcement agencies around the state.
Late last month, Augusta police teamed up with its own area agencies and went out into the streets en masse. For the first time, Hot Spots had rolled on streets outside Lewiston-Auburn.
Police here don’t mind sharing their brainchild.
“We obviously don’t mind working with other agencies,” Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere said. “That’s how we learn. That’s how we all get better.”
In fact, Lewiston police went to the Police Academy in Vassalboro recently to pass on their knowledge. Leaders of other departments wanted in, but simply hearing about Hot Spots wasn’t enough.
“They wanted to be physically involved,” Lewiston police Community Resource Officer Joe Philippon said. “They wanted to see it for themselves.”
Can do, the local cops said. On Thursday night, Operation Hot Spots rolled through downtown Lewiston, this time with a number of unfamiliar faces dressed in blue. A whole new tribe of police and drug agents joined the effort, traveling from cities like Bangor, Waterville, Portland and Rumford. The idea was to give those officers an up-close view of the coordinated effort Lewiston police have been using since 2012.
By suppertime, they had broken up into teams. Some prowled on foot in the area around Bartlett and Walnut streets, others roamed Howe and Horton streets, a few circumnavigating the city in unmarked cars. It was reasonably quiet, police said later, but the out-of-town cops got a chance to see Hot Spots in action.
The key to the success of the operation, Philippon said, is flexibility. When the officers take to the streets, they’re not following any particular script. The needs of any city will change from day to day and the people who make up Hot Spots try to be ready.
“Hot Spots is fluid,” Philippon said. “Two years ago, we weren’t thinking we’d have to deal with a bunch of arson fires, but we did. We had to adapt.”
Consider the humble origins of Hot Spots as an example. In the spring of 2012, it was organized by Bussiere as a means of addressing the problem of gunfire which had suddenly vexed the downtown. The massive showing of cops ultimately brought that issue under control.
Dozens have been arrested since the operation first got going. Some weeks, drug dealing is the focus. A week later, it might be prostitution or trespassing.
While other cities are considering going the Hot Spots route, Bussiere cautions that the problems plaguing Lewiston are not necessarily the problems faced by Augusta, Portland, Waterville or Bangor. In other words, police in those other cities can’t simply pick up Lewiston’s playbook and run with it.
“They’re going to have to tailor it,” the chief said, “to whatever their needs happen to be at the time.”
The number of agencies working Hot Spots details locally is already vast. It includes Auburn and Lisbon police departments, the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Central Maine Violent Crime Task Force, Maine Probation and Parole, Maine State Police, Department of Corrections and the U.S. Probation Office.
The swarm approach helps a particular police department overcome their limitations.
“Everybody is understaffed,” Philippon said. “They don’t have the money to do all the things they want to do. But there are some relationships you already have and there are relationships that you could establish.
“We’ve been able to pull in a lot of resources that way,” Philippon said, “at little or no cost to the city.”