Maine’s crime rate rose by more than 5 percent in 2011, taking the second jump in as many years and the largest increase since 1975, in contrast to national trends.

Burglaries, assaults and thefts all increased from 2010 to last year in rural and urban areas of Maine.

Nationally, crime dropped, according to statistics released last week by the FBI. Violent crime dropped 4 percent in 2011 and property crimes dropped 0.08 percent.

Maine remains one of the safest states, but Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said the numbers are troubling. He identified drug addiction as the prime factor.

“Drugs are the main reason for the increase as addicts commit crimes to feed their habits,” Morris said. “Prescription drug abuse is responsible for much of the state’s drug problem.”

Demand for money to buy drugs fuels many of the state’s burglaries, thefts and robberies. And substance abuse, including abuse of alcohol, contributes to many of the assaults.

Every crime category increased in 2011 except robberies, which showed a slight decline.

Crime in Portland, the state’s largest city, dropped overall, continuing a positive trend.

Police chiefs in Greater Portland said drug-related crime can drive dramatic swings in crime rates.

“Anybody in law enforcement will tell you substance abuse issues drive crime statistics, both alcohol and drugs,” said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck

He said crime in Portland is around the same level so far this year.

“While cocaine is still the major drug problem in southern Maine, prescription drugs just really blew through the entire state and are causing major, major problems for entire counties of folks,” he said.

According to the state statistics, crime rose fastest in towns that have their own police departments, compared with rural areas that are patrolled by sheriff’s deputies and state troopers.

Falmouth Police Chief Ed Tolan, who leads a group of chiefs in southern Maine for the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said it can be hard to determine exactly why crimes in one geographical area or type of community rise or fall in a given year.

He speculated that while urban centers can have a high percentage of criminals, many burglars, for instance, may have more success breaking into homes in the suburbs.

“If I’m going to commit a burglary to look for jewelry and such … South Portland, Cumberland, Falmouth, the nicer areas of Portland, that’s where you’re going to get your best bang for the buck,” Tolan said.

The Maine statistics show that arson increased by 6 percent last year, burglaries increased by 10 percent and motor vehicle thefts increased by 5 percent.

There were 28 homicides during the year, up from 24 in 2010.

Aggravated assaults increased by 16 percent, and sexual assaults increased by 6 percent. Domestic violence assaults increased by nearly 5 percent in 2011, reversing three consecutive years of declines.

Crime increased by 3.5 percent overall in rural areas, which are patrolled by state police and sheriff’s departments. It went up by 6 percent in cities and towns with their own police departments.

The 36,248 crimes reported in 2011 represent a crime rate of 27.9 offenses per 1,000 people, Morris said. The national crime rate in 2010 was 33.5 offenses per 1,000 residents. The national rate for 2011 has not yet been released.

 

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