Any Mainer who wants to know how safe their community was last year and how it compared with others can now look to the state’s Crime in Maine report.
The annual report was posted last week on the state’s website, complete with statistics for every city and town in Maine. It lists the total number of serious crimes like murder and rape, as well as lesser crimes like shoplifting and car theft.
The report also lists the crime rate in each community and how successful police are in solving those crimes.
“It’s a gauge on how safe your community is, and I think everyone should be concerned with that,” said Portland police Cmdr. Vern Malloch.
Like school test scores, the data lets residents see how their communities rate relative to others in their county and in the state.
The numbers have their limitations. For example, larceny includes reports of shoplifting and car break-ins. Because those crimes are reported in much higher numbers than crimes like murder, rape and robbery, they have a greater influence on overall crime rates.
Still, the report can be a useful measure of the overall level of crime in a community and can help police and policymakers target resources, officials say.
In 2009, Maine recorded 25.3 of the listed crimes per 1,000 people, down 1.8 percent from 2008. The national crime rate was 45.4 per 1,000 people in 2009.
“We have to remember, Maine consistently rates in the top three states in the nation for safety,” said Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan.
Tracking certain crimes can shed light on important public safety issues, Jordan said.
From 2008 to 2009, the number of robberies increased 20 percent statewide and the number of burglaries increased 3 percent.
The increases are results of drug addiction, Jordan said, as addicts try to get money for drugs.
In response, law enforcement, other government agencies and the private sector are working to reduce prescription drug diversion through better prescription monitoring, she said.
The numbers also helped to justify a grant to hire two state crime analysts, who are responsible for collecting and disseminating information about specific crimes to departments throughout the state, she said.
That helped link a robbery in Waterville with one in Biddeford, which led to the suspect’s arrest.
The statistics include clearance rates – the percentage of crimes that police have solved, usually with arrests.
Clearance rates can show how successful police departments are, but they vary greatly depending on communities’ location, where police resources are concentrated and the nature of crime in those municipalities.
The town of Cumberland had the lowest crime rate and the highest clearance rate in Cumberland County in 2009, and it holds that position repeatedly from year to year.
Cumberland is a small, relatively affluent community that doesn’t border any of the county’s major cities and lacks a downtown shopping district.
“I tout the philosophy that crime is mobile, and if you’re active in public and highly visible in the community with marked police cars, it tends to keep the criminal element out of your area,” said Police Chief Joseph Charron.
The town’s crime rate shot up 21 percent over the previous year.
Charron said the town had a wave of burglaries at the end of the year, but the crime statistics are also evidence of how modest changes in small numbers can create big statistical swings.
Clearance rates can reflect which crimes a police department emphasizes and the kind of crimes that occur in a community.
If one person commits multiple car break-ins or burglaries and gets arrested, the agency will have a higher clearance rate than if separate people commit the same number of burglaries, said Malloch, the Portland police commander.
Malloch’s department emphasizes statistical analysis of crime, week to week and by neighborhood.
“We’re looking for trending in the long term and in the short term, and take it to the level where we try to predict future levels of crime,” he said. “Our intent is to be able to predict and plan for it, and to prevent it.”
Urban areas typically have higher crime rates because there are more people in a smaller area and more opportunities for crime, and because cities often draw people from the surrounding region.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]