A jump in robberies and burglaries statewide can be traced to increased demand for addictive drugs and the money to buy them, say public safety officials.

Overall, crime in Maine increased 3.6 percent last year from 2009, according to state figures released Wednesday.

Reports of domestic violence — a chronic problem in the state — dropped for the third straight year, but reports of sexual assault increased 4.3 percent.

The state’s rate of violent crime remained about one offense per 1,000 population, compared with the national average of 4.3 per 1,000.

“Even though Maine continues to be one of the safest states in the country, the increases in robbery, burglary and theft are all a result of drugs,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Morris.

Last year’s increase in crime was uneven. Rural areas that are covered by the Maine State Police and county sheriff’s departments recorded a 14 percent overall increase, while there was a very slight increase in cities and towns with their own police departments.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said rural areas are having the same problems with crime related to drug addiction that urban areas have had. Burglaries increased 33 percent from 2008 to 2010 in the areas covered by the sheriff’s department.

“I would say I’m seeing more burglaries where people are not necessarily going in for the TV or stereo system, but bypassing that and going direct to the medicine cabinet,” Joyce said.

Because houses in rural areas tend to be farther apart and deputies are spread thin, it’s harder to fight such crime, Joyce said. “In a city, a neighbor could see you and call police,” he said.

In rural areas, all crimes increased last year except arson and simple assault. Overall, crime in communities with their own police agencies remained almost the same as in 2009.

Portland, the state’s largest city, had a 3 percent drop in overall crime from 2009 to 2010. Burglaries were down 11 percent.

“In late 2009 and early 2010 we struggled with residential burglaries because of cocaine and addicts breaking into vehicles and residences,” said Police Chief James Craig. He credited improved community relations and targeted enforcement based on weekly crime statistics for the turnaround.

Robberies have increased so far this year compared with 2010. Craig said he is optimistic that the launch this weekend of the department’s crime suppression unit will lead to a reduction.

Statewide, the rates of most crimes, including robbery, burglary, theft, aggravated assault, rape and arson, rose last year, Morris said.

Crimes that decreased were domestic violence, auto theft and assault. The 24 homicides in 2010 were two fewer than in 2009.

Morris said a recent prescription drug take-back, in which 12 tons of prescription drugs were collected by law enforcement officers across the state, reflects the level at which people are being prescribed drugs.

He said the number of drug deaths, most of them from prescription drugs, exceeds highway deaths in Maine.

“People who are ill with addiction are breaking into homes to get to the medicine cabinet,” said Morris, who wants to convene a working group of doctors, pharmacists, police, educators and treatment professionals to find a solution.

Rapes and sexual assaults increased by 4.3 percent last year, as the number of reported sexual assaults rose by 15, to 389.

The total number of domestic violence assaults, 5,117 in 2010, represents a 3.3 percent decrease from 2009, marking the third consecutive annual decrease in that crime.

“Much progress has been made to reduce violence against women, and much of the credit goes to the many support groups available in Maine to help victims,” said Morris.

The Department of Public Safety tabulates the crime numbers based on reported crimes from local, county and state law enforcement agencies.

Statewide statistics show that 34,652 crime index offenses were reported to police in 2010, compared with 33,411 in 2009, for a crime rate increase of 3.6 percent. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
[email protected]