BIDDEFORD — A new unit is giving the Biddeford Police Department more flexibility to address street-level crime immediately and clean up the perception of the city as it undergoes a downtown revitalization.

The Street Crimes Unit, launched in late November with the addition of two police officers, is focused on disrupting and preventing street-level crime, such as robberies, assaults, drug activity, disorderly conduct and vandalism. But it also uses a holistic approach to law enforcement that incorporates other departments or offices – such as code enforcement and probation – to respond rapidly to issues as they arise, said Police Chief Roger Beaupre, who has been advocating for the unit for 15 years.

As the downtown is revitalized, “we wanted to make sure the people who have made comments about feeling unsafe, that it wouldn’t be a recurring theme,” Beaupre said. “We want to improve the image of Biddeford and how the downtown is perceived by the outside.”

Last year, the City Council gave Beaupre permission to accept $250,000 in federal grants over the next three years to fund two new positions in the department. Without that infusion of cash, Beaupre would not have had the staffing level needed to launch the Street Crimes Unit, he said.

“The council has recognized there is tremendous economic activity in the downtown, yet there is a stereotype that it is unsafe,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “The data totally contradicted that, but some didn’t want to go there because of the perception. The council thought this would be a wise investment to allow (Beaupre) to go after those federal dollars. It’s paying dividends.”

The police department responded to 38,851 calls for service in 2013, an average of 107 calls per day. That heavy load means the four patrol officers on duty are constantly responding to the next call and may not have time to deal immediately with “nagging neighborhood issues” that affect the quality of life in the city, Beaupre said.

The unit showed almost immediate results by responding quickly to several incidents that may have taken detectives longer to address because of heavy workloads and an emphasis on more serious crime. Two days after the unit’s formation, officers investigated the slashing of 14 tires on Wentworth Street. Because of the unit’s ability to shift focus to deal with that investigation immediately, officers were able to solve the case and make an arrest within two days, Beaupre said.

Last week, the unit was involved in the arrest of 38-year-old Jennifer Neal, who police say was selling her adult son’s prescription medication for $10 per pill. When the Street Crimes Unit found out about the activity, they were able to almost immediately set up a “buy and bust” sting and make the arrest, said Sgt. Steve Gorton, who heads the unit and has been with the department for 18 years. Police then notified the prescribing doctor, the pharmacy where the prescription was filled, and MaineCare because it may constitute abuse of the system.

Gorton, who has a background in community policing, said he and the other full-time officer assigned to the unit are able to focus on developing intelligence, which they share in a weekly briefing with other officers assigned to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI Violent Gang Task Force. Biddeford’s street crimes officers also have met with police in Portland and Scarborough to share information.

The Portland Police Department operates a similar unit – called the Crime Reduction Unit – that for the past several years has allowed a “hybrid” team the flexibility to address issues and deal with emerging crime trends, said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.

“It’s a very effective tool for us to deal with ongoing issues in the community,” he said. “We’re constantly looking for patterns and trends to further combat crime using data. If we have a cluster of burglaries or threats or drinking-in-public complaints, the unit can go address those problems.”

Delilah Poupore, executive director of the downtown organization Heart of Biddeford, said the new unit and the walking patrols that Beaupre added last summer address the feedback that city leaders received from residents as part of the 2011 downtown master planning process. During community meetings at that time, residents and business owners said the city needed to increase safety and the appearance of safety downtown.

“They can now address crime and create more relationships with people on the street, so they’re able to deal with issues before they become crimes,” Poupore said. “I think it does let people know that if they want to walk from a parking lot to a Main Street business, they’re not going to be alone. There is a police presence.”