Street Talk: Crunching Lewiston’s crime stats

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It was, some thought, the darkest time in Lewiston’s history.

The craziness went on all year and was the kind of craziness that made national headlines.

A group of teenagers slashed the throat of a cab driver and then left him for dead in a parking lot. A giant, corn-fed farmhand named Lloyd Frank Millett strangled one woman and stuffed her in a closet before snatching another from a hotel party and leaving her raped and ravaged body in a field. Groups of savage teens broke into the homes of the elderly and tied the terrified old folks to chairs.

In 1995, crack cocaine was everywhere, home invasions were regular occurrences and organized gangs were starting to put down roots in the downtown. There were shootings and stabbings and blood-stained sidewalks. The people who lived here talked about how Lewiston had gone to hell and how it wasn’t safe to walk the streets anymore. Many worried that the city might never recover from the scourge of dark-hearted violence.

That’s how I remember 1995, and so with these grim memories in mind, I wandered to the FBI crime statistics page to find evidence of this dark and terrible time.

There were four murders in Lewiston in 1995, a high that hasn’t been seen here since. But the other numbers don’t come anywhere close to supporting the idea that the year had been in any way historic in its waves of violence.

In 1995, a year of spent shell casings and blood-soaked everything, just 65 aggravated assaults were recorded. That was down from 97 the previous year and not even in sight of the 177 such assaults reported a decade prior, in 1985.

In 1995, a total of 150 violent crimes were recorded, again down from the year prior and way, WAY below the 227 violent crimes that vexed the city in 1985.

According to the numbers, 1995 was for the most part just an ordinary year in Lewiston, in spite of the ghastly, high-profile nature of the violence that had vexed it. As is often the case, the judgment of the city as a crime-ravaged wasteland had been mostly the product of skewed perceptions. What’s more, crime numbers in Lewiston plummeted the following year with the overall number of violent crimes dropping by more than 50 percent.

In spite of the horrors, Lewiston hadn’t entered a local dark age. In spite of the dire prognostications, it did recover, and the crime numbers have more or less continued to drop in the years since.

Which is not to say that there is no reason to panic.

Crime numbers seldom tell the whole story. For one, police everywhere are known to fudge those numbers, turning aggravated assaults into simple assaults and robberies into thefts for the good of the city’s image. Crime statistics are just cold numbers that don’t take into account the circumstances of the violence. They don’t note the way that it sometimes comes in a mad rush, overwhelming those in its path with sheer relentlessness.

This year so far in Lewiston is bookmarked by a pair of particularly violent crimes: the late-spring beating death of a man near Kennedy Park and now the vicious, daylight stabbing of a woman who was with her children on Sabattus Street.

In between we’ve had a woman beaten with a pipe on Walnut Street and a man pummeled so viciously on Blake Street that firefighters had to come and hose blood out of the street. There have been stabbings and slashings and other ugly occurrences that never made the news.

We’ve had shootings almost around the clock, with rounds punching holes in the sides of tenement buildings and occasionally in the flesh of their intended victims. In the neighborhoods around Bartlett and Walnut streets, people have become accustomed to ducking for cover at the first pop, bang or kaboom to thunder across the downtown. Some older folks say they don’t dare to leave their homes anymore. Some parents are teaching their kids to duck when they hear loud noises.

It’s crazy and the people who live here are absolutely justified in talking about the violence anywhere they get a chance. But is 2018 going to be a historic time for crime in Lewiston? Has it really become a place where you have to avoid some neighborhoods and it’s best to steer clear of the park after sundown?

As is always the case in Lewiston, perception is everything and it depends on who you ask.

“This is nuts,” says Ronda Carbonneau, who lives downtown. “Definitely worse down here than ever.”

“I remember growing up and Lewiston was violent,” says Jeanne Marie, who was born in 1987. “I was warned not to go near Kennedy Park or the surrounding area. It’s just talked about more online. It seems more violent than it is. To me it just seems like it’s more of the same as it was when I was younger.”

“I think it is more violent than ever,” says Terri Blasi, who lives in Auburn. “I don’t remember a summer like this.”

“I suspect this isn’t too far out of the ordinary,” says Christine Grindle, formerly of Lewiston, “but it’s hard to tell when you’re in the thick of the community outrage – particularly in the age of the internet and social media.”

“Definitely getting worse,” says Joline Lacoste, “not even safe to drive around town, don’t know who is shooting at whom.”

“My view, now removed and from away, is that Lewiston’s recent violence is a blip,” says former City Councilor Joyce A. Purcell. “It seems bigger if you live there, and of course the rest of Maine will use the occasion to look down on the city and disparage it.”

Discuss the matter of violence in Lewiston all day long and you’ll have a day’s worth of this kind of back and forth. Some will tell you that Lewiston used to be such a nice place where we never had problems like this. Others insist that blood in the streets and the echoes of gunfire are just a matter of Lewiston being Lewiston.

“I’ve been here all my life and people don’t remember the quiet times,” David Marquis said. “It is the crime, the fear and rage they remember most.”

Former probation officer Pauline Gudas sees violence in Lewiston – or anywhere, for that matter – as a reflection of the times.

“The ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, the downtown clubs and bars were the biggest problems,” she said. “Drunks were robbed and the street fights were usually a result of overdrinking. The late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were the closing down of the mills and shoe shops. The clubs and bars on Lisbon Street were under the microscope of the city. Eventually most of them were closed or moved.”

So, what about 2018? Exactly what is 2018’s damage?

Police said drug dealers and gangsters from lower New England cities are a large part of the trouble, just as they were in the raucous 1990s. Others say addiction is at the root of the problem, which has been the case as long as anyone can remember.

Some reason that poor parenting is behind it all. For others it’s political unrest, the sprawling welfare state or lack of services for the mentally ill.

Maybe it’s all those things, maybe it’s none of them. In Lewiston, a kind of collective madness seems to fall over the city in regular cycles, like the dull throbbing of a black heart. Even if the numbers don’t support the notion that this has been an historically bad year, you’ve got to admit that 2018, so far, has been a fairly frightening ride.

And of course, bear in mind that it’s only half done.

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