Lewiston police: ‘You’ve always got to hope’

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Cpl. Eugene Kavanagh of the Lewiston Police Department stands with his police cruiser. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Constant public disrespect and misunderstanding. Big-city problems. More desk work and less time on the street. That’s life through the eyes of four Lewiston police officers as the city deals with a spike in violence. 

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. The interviews with police for this story were done before Lewiston officers began protesting the lack of a contract by wearing T-shirts instead of issued police attire.

LEWISTON — Cpl. Eugene Kavanagh is used to being called a racist.

Cpl. Jason Johnson is used to getting flak when he makes simple requests to people, such as to use the sidewalk or to stop screaming in the street in the middle of the night.

They’re used to reading smack on social media. And getting public blow-back when they respond to a fight and don’t immediately arrest someone.

“People are complaining,” said fellow Officer Nick Wiers. “They want us to do certain things to get the city under control, but at the end of the day, people don’t respect us, people don’t listen, and it’s become so difficult, almost impossible for us to do our jobs.

“We try to tell people to move along or the park is closed and we’re told to, ‘F*** off,’ we’re told we’re pigs, we’re told we’re racist because we’re simply telling a group of black people to move along.”

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Local police — facing increased scrutiny as tensions heat up in the city after two homicides in a month and reports of random gunshots — say they’re frustrated by a lack of respect in day-to-day encounters, by people not really understanding what they do or how much time it takes, by an increase in drugs and violence in parts of the city and by a staff shortage that’s dogged the department since the start of summer.

The Sun Journal sat down with four members of the Lewiston Police Department recently to talk about what they’ve been experiencing. The four have been with the department between seven and 19 years. They were candid. Some were hopeful for the future.

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Detective Tyler Michaud of the Lewiston Police Department stands at the evidence van, which is used when a significant amount of evidence needs to be collected at a crime scene. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

ARRESTING MATH

The city has a roster of 82 officer positions that fell to 73 actual people at the start of summer with injuries, training and unfilled positions. Last week, it was 76.

Not, of course, that they’re all on duty at one time.

“I love asking this of people in the street: How many cops do you think are on?” said Detective Tyler Michaud. “‘I don’t know, 15-20?’ No, we have seven most times.”

In response to increased violence, last month Chief Brian O’Malley added a few more staff to overnight patrols. During the day, if one person gets tied up with a call, it’s down to six, for the whole city.

The officers said people don’t understand how easy it is to get tied up.

Police responded 67 times to a man with substance abuse-related issues in a recent six-week period, prompting him to be taken to the hospital by ambulance each time, according to Kavanagh. Those type of PCF (person cared for) calls for someone in medical or mental distress “are two-person calls, at least,” he said.

Lewiston’s had more than 550 such calls so far this year.

Adding to that, some people play the system. Many times, Kavanagh said, he has had to wait outside a hospital room door at St. Mary’s listening to someone under arrest providing only vague answers to doctors — maybe I’m pregnant, maybe I’m not, maybe I want to hurt myself, maybe I don’t — hoping the visit stretches out so long that Kavanagh is called away for another police emergency and doesn’t take them back to the county jail.

“The people that we bring, they know what they’re doing,” Kavanagh said. “‘OK, well if I stall long enough, they’re just going to give me a summons.’ Then they’re going to check themselves out AMA (against medical advice) and then do the exact same things they got arrested for.

“When you’ve only got five or six (officers) out there and they’re yelling for cars and you’re just sitting at the hospital with somebody waiting to take them to jail, (instead you) just give them a summons and let them go,” he said. “It’s been done plenty of times.”

If an officer isn’t called away, medical clearance can be a two- to two-and-a-half hour call.

Back in 2000, writing the report for an operating-under-the-influence charge took an hour, Johnson said. Today, that’s up to three hours that an officer is at a desk instead of on the road.

“Because there are so many things required by the district attorney’s office for prosecution — videos, lengthy reports, videos from your car, videos from the street — the length of investigations today, I would put out there they far exceed the length of investigations that occurred years ago here,” Johnson said.

Shootings and complicated investigations can take detectives away from other things for weeks, Michaud said.

“Instead of one or two major cases, detectives have three or four cases at a time,” he said. “I have more than that. We’re working more serious cases than we have in the past, at least in volume.”

All of that time being tied up, along with the reduced roster, translates to less time spent on the streets being proactive and creating a presence, which Wiers argues creates more issues.

“We’re dealing with a lot of problems that big cities are dealing with … all with seven guys on the road,” he said. “It used to be that we could make an arrest, solve the problem and move on. But a lot of guys are just saying, ‘Oh well, our hands are tied. If I do this, I’m going to be pulled off the road to do everything that needs to get done, and now I’m not going to be able to handle calls, I won’t be available if something truly serious comes in and I’m going to end up passing along all of my calls on my beat to the next guy.'”

THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S PERSPECTIVE

As police are spread thin and strapped for time, officers say they’re not feeling supported by city officials or the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office.

Sometimes the paperwork doesn’t seem worth it, they said, especially with limited staff, when cases don’t end up being prosecuted.

Andrew Robinson, district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, said his office is suffering from the same issues as the Police Department — a huge workload with limited staff.

Last year, two full-time prosecutors dedicated to Lewiston cases split some 1,500 complaints submitted by the department. The recommended annual case load for each prosecutor is about 350, he said.

“It’s hard to keep up with the volume,” he said. “It’s not that we shrug our shoulders and say we’re not interested (in less serious charges). It really is that if it’s significant, we’re going to prosecute. If it looks like the issues were resolved at the time and we’ve got a lot of other cases to focus on, then we’ve got to make those calls.”

Robinson also sympathizes with officer complaints about the documentation required for each arrest. He said in a case like a driving-under-the-influence charge, what used to be a two-page report is now four or five, with digital evidence including cruiser videos, Breathalyzer results and more. His office deals with the very same paperwork.

But, he said, “that paperwork translates into constitutional protections that we are sworn to uphold.”

Robinson said in response to the rising demands, his office established an information-sharing system that uses an encrypted server to allow all parties involved access to the evidence in a case.

“It is a heck of a lot more work, so they’re right,” Robinson said. “But it’s evolved because of technology and the material that’s so readily available.”

Cpl. Jason Johnson of the Lewiston Police Department stands with his cruiser in the department’s compound on Park Street after his shift ended earlier this week. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

HIGHER WORKLOAD, LESS PAY

Police say the starting pay and benefits in Lewiston do not match those offered in cities with easier workloads, which has amplified tensions during ongoing contract negotiations.

As of this week, Lewiston hit 25,113 calls for the year to date, compared to 16,019 in Auburn. Given LPD’s current 76 officers and Auburn’s 53 as of last week, Lewiston officers are handling an average of 9 percent more calls. Starting pay for an entry-level patrol officer in Lewiston is $19.80 an hour. In Auburn, it’s $20.27.

Johnson said the types of calls Lewiston police are responding to are “by far more violent.”

“We don’t right now have a package that entices applications to come in here,” Michaud said. “That’s one of the starting blocks. The community deserves to have good, educated, dedicated employees.”

The current union contract expired June 30, and in an attempt to put the spotlight on a lack of a contract, officers began wearing green police T-shirts last week as an alternative uniform.

Denis D’Auteuil, Lewiston’s deputy city administrator who serves as the city’s chief contract negotiator, said last week there isn’t one particular issue that’s holding up a new police contract, and that he’s encouraged that at each meeting, the two sides are progressing.

“I’m hoping we’re going to come to agreement here in the near future,” he said.

D’Auteuil said Lewiston’s “image issue” is on everyone’s minds at City Hall. But he believes “it would be a mistake to judge Lewiston — and what Lewiston is about — on what’s occurred in the last eight weeks. I don’t believe it to be a true reflection.”

Lewiston Police Officer Nicholas Wiers stands in the patrol issue room of the Police Department. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

LACK OF RESPECT ON THE STREETS

The expected stress of police work has been heightened, Lewiston police say, by the fact that it’s rare these days to have an easy interaction with people out on the street.

When officers arrive, even in a situation that seems routine, they’re often met with people unwilling to engage in conversation. Or, people hold up a phone and begin videotaping the encounter.

Wiers, a downtown beat officer of seven years, was born and raised in Lewiston. He said the lack of respect isn’t coming from one particular demographic. It’s mostly the norm from everyone.

“We’re met with a lot of resistance on a daily basis,” he said. “The majority of our interactions definitely take some time, and don’t go super easy. You’ve got to spend time to try to get people to do what they need to do.”

As for the volunteer citizen patrols starting soon in Kennedy Park, which are meant to add watchful eyes and discourage melees, the officers are skeptical. Despite the good intentions behind the patrols, there’s an equal chance they’ll add to the police’s work, Kavanagh said.

“I think they’re going to get the ‘F*** yous’ worse than we will, honestly,” he said. “What enforcement action can they take if a kid says, ‘I’m not going anywhere, who are you?’ We get that all the time: ‘You’re not my mother, you’re not my father, you can’t make me.’ Yeah, actually, we can. We can, but (the volunteers) can’t, so they’re just going to call us.”

Michaud said one of the most frustrating things for police, especially in the social media age, is that they are asked to be “the first line of defense for the First Amendment, but we have no First Amendment. We have no freedom of speech. We can’t really say anything. I can’t go on social media and say anything.”

As for the increased scrutiny being placed on law enforcement, Wiers said, “People tend to think they’re a sidewalk lawyer, that we’re always trying to violate their rights. No one is out looking to violate rights.”

He said it’s typical for dozens of people to gather following any police response, no matter where it is.

Wiers was working the night of the Knox Street brawl that led to Donald Guisti’s death in June. When police arrived, there were three officers, and Wiers said they were surrounded by more than 100 people.

“Unfortunately, all we could do was surround the victim and form a perimeter to protect the crime scene and try to render what aid we could to him until an ambulance got there,” he said. “People surround us and it creates more incidents. People refuse to listen.”

As for the officers being hopeful about the future?

They say a lot needs to improve. They need more officers, they need more resources to combat the opioid crisis. They say parents should pay more attention to what their kids are doing. They’d like to see more prosecutions so it sends a stronger message deterring future crime.

“You’ve always got to hope,” Kavanagh said.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Johnson said. But for now, he’s trying to have faith.

“Faith and strong family, for me, has allowed me to endure years of this,” he said. “It does wear on you. It’s frustrating to have people repeat the same thing over and over and over again. It’s the definition of insanity.”

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