While Lewiston hasn’t transformed into Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry,” Police Chief Michael Bussiere is proud of the progress his city is making when it comes to violent crime.

The city, after all, has a persistent — if inaccurate — reputation for being a dangerous place. In reality, the larger of Maine’s Twin Cities is actually the safest of the state’s three largest cities, when it comes to per-capita crime.

In 2014, the city had a crime rate of 26.8 crimes per 1,000 residents compared to Portland’s rate of 34.7 and Bangor’s rate of 53.4. That crime rate calculates all of the so-called index crime, including violent crime and other offenses such as larceny, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson.

The four categories of crime considered violent by the FBI include murder, sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery.

In 2014, Lewiston saw 107 crimes that fell into these violent-crime categories. Through July of this year, the most current information available from the department, the tally is 46.

In Bangor, the total for all violent crimes so far this year is 48 compared to 55 for all of 2014. In Portland, the total for violent crimes through mid-September was 164, compared to 147 for all of 2014.

In Lewiston, Bussiere has no intention of resting on his department’s laurels.

“It’s good to have successes and it’s good to show improvement,” Bussiere said, “but one thing we are never going to do is to sit back and be satisfied and say, ‘OK, this is where we need to be,’ because we can always get better. This city can always get better.”

Because of the downward trend in violent crime, Bussiere said, police are addressing more of what he calls “quality of life” issues.

Four years ago, when he and his department started holding community meetings, the concerns being brought up were far different, Bussiere said.

“People were initially talking about big issues, like drug trafficking out on the street corner and hearing shots fired at night or being concerned about people shooting at other people, people being engaged in prostitution,” Bussiere said. “Now they are starting to talk about quality-of-life issues, like, ‘The building next door to me is vacant and not boarded up and people are getting in there,’ or, ‘People are hanging out and drinking in public,’ or, ‘Kids are out after curfew.'”

And while police still have to handle these lesser crimes and disturbance issues, Bussiere said the transition in the type of complaints is “almost music to our ears.”

“That means we know we are dealing with some of those other issues and now people are looking at these other concerns that were probably pushed back,” Bussiere said. “So when we start hearing those types of complaints as well, you get the sense that now we are moving in the right direction.”

When it comes to per-capita crime in Maine’s biggest cities, Bangor is in the dubious No. 1 spot, and a recent spike in bank robberies in Portland has Maine’s hip Port City battling a violent crime rate that has ticked up about 12 percent over the past year.

As of September, Portland had exceeded its total 2014 violent crime counts in three of the four categories, including murder, sexual assault and robbery.

Robbery crimes documented in 2014 totaled 58 compared to 75 as of September this year, according to crime data provided by the Portland Police Department.

But overall crime is down 11 percent from last year, Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said, “and last year we had an 18 percent decrease in crime.” 

The uptick in violent crime in his city is being driven by two murders this year when there were none in 2014, along with a large increase in robberies.

“In the city of Portland, what we know about crime is it is very centralized in the sense that we have surges in robberies,” Sauschuck said, noting that since May the city has seen eight bank robberies.

That “is just completely off the charts,” Sauschuck said. “That’s something we don’t normally see.”

He said suspects have been arrested and were being charged in all eight of those cases.

“Now that doesn’t change the fact that that’s a scary trend,” Sauschuck said, “because criminals, in general, might look at that and would go, ‘Jeez, maybe we should commit a bank robbery because you can get a lot of money, and look — they are happening in Portland all the time.'”

“But you know criminals don’t read the newspapers,” Sauschuck said. “They don’t realize that all eight of these individuals are now facing up to 20-year federal prison sentences.”

Both he and Bussiere said almost all of the violent crime their respective departments deal with is connected to substance abuse — drugs and alcohol — and trafficking in illicit drugs, including heroin and prescription painkillers.

“When you see a surge like we’ve seen in heroin use, and how that portrays itself in the system through overdoses, those same surges result in crime, and we’ve seen that over and over again,” Sauschuck said. “The vast majority of our crime is substance-abuse related.”

Sauschuck said the drive addicts have to support their habit and avoid withdrawal sickness compels them to do all manners of crime.

“They don’t want to get sick, period — and they are willing to do anything to, in their own mind, survive — and that includes robbing people and stealing things and doing all those things, day to day, that drive crime rates,” Sauschuck said.

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