PORTLAND – A few months after James Craig arrived from Los Angeles to lead the Portland Police Department, he delivered a speech to civic leaders entitled: “What’s Love got to Do With It? Leadership lessons from the beat,” about caring for young people to insulate them from gang influences.

The presentation was received warmly, particularly coming from a police official who was molded in an area that’s rife with violent gangs and urban crime.

Two weeks ago, Craig had a much different audience. He met with 15 juveniles at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

There was no media. Craig said he wanted the kids to be open and the give-and-take to be sincere.

“I felt we needed to reach them,” and efforts on the outside hadn’t worked, Craig said in a recent interview. “I decided I’d have a better chance going into Long Creek and having a captive audience of young people, no pun intended, and try to figure out what their impressions were of police and how we could support their transition back into the community.”

Last weekend, Craig marked one year on the job as Portland’s police chief.

One of his top priorities since he arrived has been making inroads with youths who are straddling the line between adolescence and adulthood, and between productive citizenship and lives of crime.

He envisions increased mentoring and expanded youth activities that will help make a difference.

Some of the people who were involved in selecting Craig to lead Portland’s police force say he has delivered what he offered: command experience in a big city and a commitment to community involvement.

“I’ve been impressed with the way he’s handled a variety of issues,” said Dr. Robert McAfee, a former president of the American Medical Association, whom City Manager Joe Gray consulted before making the selection.

McAfee said Craig’s relatively subdued manner — compared with former longtime Chief Michael Chitwood — has been positive, while he maintains a high profile.

Not all of Craig’s initiatives have been to McAfee’s liking.

Soon after he arrived, Craig pushed for the city to equip officers with Tasers, saying the stun guns allow officers to subdue suspects with fewer injuries to them and officers. McAfee was concerned that Tasers could be lethal.

McAfee said he remains concerned about that, but he noted that Craig has insisted that officers are trained to use them appropriately.

Craig says the decision to use Tasers has been justified by experience. In the eight months since officers have been using Tasers, they have used them six times and there have been no abuses, he said.

There have been other controversies in the past 12 months.

One is the sometimes-strained relations between police and some members of Portland’s Sudanese community. Craig said the department continues to work on that relationship and feels the criticism isn’t representative of the broader Sudanese community.

Another issue relates to members of the department’s two police unions, who expressed support for hiring someone from outside the department.

Craig said he has enjoyed good relations with the unions, but there is tension as the city cuts back on the number of officer positions and compensates with grant-funded positions, and as officers enter contract negotiations.

“We took a wage freeze last year and our benefits, the cost of our health insurance, has gone up markedly,” said David Argitis, a patrolman who is president of the Police Benevolent Association. “The chief has not been able to achieve increased compensation for the members of union.”

However, Argitis said, Craig has brought a host of new ideas to the department, which aspires to be a great police force and not rest on the status quo.

“How could we not welcome so many years of experience in probably one of the more important law enforcement agencies in our country?” he said.

Craig said he feels good about his accomplishments to date but there is still significant work to be done.

He plans to develop a strategic plan for the department to work on over the next three to five years, something that he said has been lacking.

Craig also wants to focus on eradicating the fledgling gangs that have been coalescing in the city, before they become the major institutional crime problem they have become in Los Angeles.

“My experience tells me we’re at a place and time — because it is in its infant stage — we have an opportunity to intervene and when necessary enforce strongly to disrupt the gang leadership,” he said.

His youth services officer is scouting out new locations for basketball courts, and exploring the possibility of a midnight cyber-cafe at the newly renovated Portland Public Library.

Craig has transplanted many of his successful initiatives from Los Angeles, which are considered some of the best practices in the country:

The senior lead officer program, in which one officer is the primary liaison with each section of the city.

CompStat, a running statistical analysis of crime in the city.

Police Explorers, a mentoring program for teenagers who are interested in police careers.

Other changes Craig brought were in response to officers’ feedback.

He approved new uniforms and a new schedule of four 10-hour days, and repealed the requirement that officers wear hats when they’re in public.

Craig said that when he arrived, morale was low and the department lacked leadership that was receptive to input.

On a personal level, Craig has settled into the community, as much as a West Coast muscle-car enthusiast can adapt to northern New England.

Craig left his 1970 Pontiac GTO back in Los Angeles, relatively safe from the ubiquitous salt of coastal Maine.

A car enthusiast since his upbringing in Detroit, Craig is a member of the Portland Motor Club. His pleasure car here is a Corvette ZO6.

“Some people have a boat, and I have a muscle car,” Craig said.

Craig has had to make personal adjustments, and more than just adapting to the weather.

His wife had hoped to expand her business to Maine, but instead expanded in California. The distance and the planning they do just to see each other is a challenge, but they are making it work and are supporting each other’s career moves, he said.

Craig said his appreciation of classic cars and his health regimen — he works out three or four days a week, rising at 5 a.m. to be ready when the gym opens at 5:30 — help him approach each day with a positive attitude.

“Part of my whole mindset is having a life that’s balanced,” he said.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]