AUBURN — Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere challenged local businesspeople Thursday to confront others when they start talking about how bad Lewiston is — and to contradict fiction with facts.

Bussiere, along with Community Resource Officer Joe Philippon and Sgt. Robert Ullrich, were guest speakers at Thursday’s Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Their presentation, “Perception vs. Reality,” compared what people think of crime in Lewiston to reality.

“Let’s stop pretending it used to be better” in this city, Bussiere said. “We always wax nostalgic” about the past. “We look back and think things in our community were much better — they weren’t. Things are a lot calmer now. A lot better.”

Bussiere, who is native to Lewiston, remembers a Lewiston that was “rougher, tougher,” particularly in the downtown.

In 1988, the crime rate was 77.15, or 77.15 crimes per 100,000 population. With the exception of a spike in 1996 and 1997, the crime rate has steadily declined since then. In 2014, it was calculated at 27.27 crimes per 100,000 through the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reporting, a drop of 24 percent from 2013.

According to FBI statistics, Bangor has had a higher crime rate than Lewiston since 1996, Portland’s crime rate has been higher than Lewiston since 2002 and the crime rate in Auburn has been higher than Lewiston since 2007. 

But, Bussiere stressed to chamber members, he’s not interested in comparing crime rates among cities. Statistically speaking, Maine is among the safest states in the country, so there’s nothing to be gained from comparing city to city, he said.

Bussiere emphasized the need — he called it “overdue” — for people who live and work in Lewiston to bust the myth that Lewiston is more dangerous than other places in Maine.

As crime rates throughout the city have dropped over the past three decades, Bussiere said, “I’m not sure our perception has met our reality” because many people in Maine still perceive Lewiston as “scary.”

As the state’s second-largest city, Lewiston is not crime-free, Bussiere said, but it’s safer than all other large cities, and statistically, safer than some smaller towns, including Mexico, Rumford, Skowhegan, Calais, Ogunquit, Ellsworth and Swan’s Island, according to the state Department of Public Safety’s Crime in Maine Report.

“We’re all stakeholders,” Bussiere said, in changing the outside perception of Lewiston. “We need to go out there and start advocating for our city.”

Ullrich echoed Bussiere, asking chamber members to tell friends and business contacts that “this perception that you have of us is not true.”

One of the major reasons the crime rate has dropped so dramatically over time, Bussiere said, is because of the department’s active and engaged community policing team.

Philippon is a member of that team and has talked to chamber members about the department’s outreach, including increasing contact with children and following up with social service agencies when they see a child in need.

That regular contact and outreach has reduced the number of juvenile arrests since 2000.

That year, there were 678 juveniles charged with various crimes. Arrests spiked to 747 in 2001, but have continually dropped ever since. In 2014, Lewiston police made 168 juvenile arrests — a 35.63 percent drop from 2013 and a 77.51 percent decrease since 2001, according to LPD records.

Despite decreases in crime and arrests, there is a lingering — and frustrating — perception that Lewiston is dangerous.

Last year, in cooperation with Central Maine Community College, the Lewiston Police Department conducted a community survey, asking people about their perceptions of Lewiston.

According to that survey, 63 percent of people report always, or almost always, feeling safe in Lewiston, and 50 percent of people do not fear being victims of crime.

But, according to Philippon, 41 percent of people surveyed believe that crime has increased in Lewiston over the past three years.

“That’s not true,” he said.

In 2011, the crime rate was 39.67, or 39.67 crimes per 100,000 population. In 2012, the rate jumped a bit to 40.74, and then dropped to 35.90 in 2013 and to 27.27 last year.

The FBI numbers are the city’s reality, Bussiere said, and yet the perception of danger persists.

Of people taking the community survey, 89 percent believe drugs and alcohol contribute to crime.

That is absolutely true, Bussiere said. “Drugs and alcohol are huge drivers of crime everywhere,” and while the crime rate in Lewiston may be less than in Auburn, Portland or Bangor, the transient nature of criminals means “we’re all chasing the same criminals. Their criminals are our criminals.”

The police officers also credited the department’s Hot Spot efforts with controlling crime. Hot Spots was launched following three violent episodes involving firearms in the downtown in the spring of 2012, according to Philippon.

Since November 2013, the department has used grants for 67 extra — and visible — patrols downtown. In the course of those patrols, police have seized 50 illegal firearms, 4.41 pounds of heroin and crack, 960 pills and $155,480 in drug-trafficking cash.

As a result of these seizures, 343 people have been charged with various crimes and 40 people have been indicted by Androscoggin County grand juries on felony charges.

Pointing to these numbers, Philippon said when Hot Spots was launched, people were complaining about firearms and now people are complaining about trash.

“That’s progress,” he said.

Over the same period, Bussiere said, city administrators, Mayor Robert Macdonald and city councilors became more aggressive about identifying uninhabitable buildings and tearing them down. He praised those efforts, to a round of applause for city officials, explaining that many of the buildings had become centers of drug and criminal activity and “when they take these buildings down, these people are going to live somewhere else,” Bussiere said.

With the crime rate dropping and fewer places for criminals to live, Bussiere said the city, its residents and its business owners must “focus on underlying quality-of-life issues that cause and create crime within our city,” and must also work to raise the outside perception of Lewiston.

“This city has a lot going for it — it always has,” Bussiere said, imploring chamber members to bring the city’s perception closer to its reality.

“Confront people when they start talking bad about Lewiston,” he said. “You people can be our ambassadors.”

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