Maine continues to have an extremely low crime rate compared to the nation overall, but the number of robberies and burglaries — likely fueled by drug addiction — jumped in 2009.

The Maine Department of Public Safety released its annual crime statistics Wednesday. The numbers track the 10 most serious crimes, ranging from murder to theft, as reported by local departments, sheriffs and the State Police.

The statistics show a total of 33,411 of those crimes committed in Maine during 2009, down 1.8 percent from the previous year. That results in a crime rate of 25.3 offenses per 1,000 residents compared to a national rate of 45.4 offenses per 1,000 people.

Maine saw declines in the number of assaults and aggravated assaults, thefts and auto thefts.

Robberies, where violence or the threat of violence was used to steal from someone, climbed almost 20 percent statewide, from 332 to 398. The crime is worrisome to public safety officials because it is a crime of violence driven by a need for money or goods, suggesting a level of desperation or callousness.

The number of burglaries increased 3 percent to 6,711.

“It’s driven by narcotics. We know that that’s what is driving the crime,” said Portland Police Chief James Craig, whose department’s statistics reflect similar trends, with increases in burglaries and robberies amid a significant overall decline in violent crime and property crime.

Public safety officials say crime statistics can help authorities spot crime trends and develop strategies to address them. Craig spoke by telephone from a Justice Department conference in Rhode Island on “predictive policing,” which attempts to anticipate and pre-empt crime.

“The old way is just responding to crime, and responding to crime does not work,” he said.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said the cost to victims of drug-related crime, including the persistent problem of prescription drug abuse, requires a broad response, not just police arrests.

“We really have to take a wide view and position on this,” he said. “It takes having viable prevention programs, viable law enforcement programs and viable treatment programs to address this issue.”

Nationally, 2009 saw a drop in all serious crimes.

The level of crime ebbs and flows from year to year, and in a state like Maine the numbers can be deceptive in certain categories.

The number of murders went from 21 in 2007 to 31 in 2008 then dropped back to 26 in 2009. Although the percentage changes were significant, it is not necessarily indicative of broad changes in criminal behavior.

The number of arsons in Maine also jumped dramatically, from 188 to 243, and the value of the damage tripled from $3.1 million to $9.4 million.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said arsons often increase in bad economies. People may try to avoid debt or foreclosure, and buildings left vacant are more prone to incendiary fires.

Police departments are also getting better about reporting suspicious fires. Dumpster fires that may once have been written off as criminal mischief are now categorized as arson, Thomas said.

The huge increase in damage from arson fires is probably related to a couple of spectacularly destructive fires such as the Cowan Mill in Lewiston and the former Yorktowne Paper Mill in Gardiner that caused multimillion-dollar losses.

Running counter to the state trend, arsons nationally are down 10.4 percent.

And as arsons were on the rise statewide, they took a dive in Portland from 32 to 16. That’s because in 2008, one individual was responsible for a string of 15 car fires in one day.

Whether it’s arson, burglaries or bank robberies, sometimes one person can influence the statistics all by himself, as can one good arrest.

“If you have one individual who is particularly active and does not get arrested, your numbers are definitely going to go up,” said Lt. Gary Rogers, head of detectives in Portland. “If you lock them up, then you’re preventing (crimes) from happening.”

Portland police issued a notice Friday to residents in the Deering section about a wave of daytime burglaries, where someone had been forcing open locked doors or windows and stealing cash, jewelry and electronics.

Police subsequently arrested some suspects and hope the problem has been addressed.

 

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

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