Police deal with the 'CSI effect'

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LEWISTON — The public often doesn’t understand what police can and can’t do in their jobs protecting the community, Lewiston officers say.

They can’t solve all crimes in under an hour. Obtaining a search warrant alone takes hours, not minutes, unlike on TV, police Detective Tyler Michaud said.

When he was a member of the Central Maine Violent Crimes Task Force, it could take 18 months to build a case, Cpl. Jason Johnson said.

“You’ll hear people, ‘Well, they’ve been selling drugs that whole time and they didn’t arrest them,'” he said. “Well, you have to build a case and it has to satisfy (requirements) on our level, the district attorney, on the federal level, the U.S. attorney.”

Echoed Michaud, “I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘CSI effect.’ People have an unrealistic expectation of the timeline of events.”

Police can’t kick down your neighbor’s door if you complain about their loud party and when police knock, no one comes to the door, Johnson said.

When police tell a tenant who is angry with a noisy neighbor that they should call their landlord, Johnson said, that can contribute to a feeling of “police won’t do anything, anyway,” even though that’s the only recourse.

If police arrive in the aftermath of a fight that isn’t a domestic violence situation, they can’t arrest someone merely because someone else is yelling, “I want that guy arrested!”

“It’s a misdemeanor crime, it didn’t occur in my presence, therefore I cannot physically arrest them,” Johnson said. In that situation, police likely would issue a summons.

Police also can’t just whisk someone off for mental health services against their will.

They’ve had interactions with a local woman with mental illness more than 80 times this year, Cpl. Eugene Kavanagh said. On one of the last calls, she’d emptied several trash bags filled with belongings on a church lawn and was yelling at the building. Onlookers gathered to watch as the police got her new trash bags and helped her gather her things.

“She’s still talking to the wall and I asked her all of the questions that we should: ‘When was the last time you slept? When was the last time you ate? Do you want to hurt yourself? Do you want to hurt somebody else?'” Kavanagh said.

“She answered them to the point that I didn’t have enough to take her to St. Mary’s against her will. The public is just seeing us make her pick everything up and then leave her there. ‘Well, how come you didn’t take her to St. Mary’s?’ Well, we can’t.”

On the whole, people have unrealistic expectations of law enforcement today, Michaud said.

“They want us to be the first responder, a social worker, a drug counselor, all things,” he said. “At the end of the day, 17-A (Maine Criminal Code) is the law book. We’re only lawfully allowed to do what’s in 17-A.”

Detective Tyler Michaud from 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)

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