A shift in police tactics, and what police say is good behavior by the public, has led to a reduction in arrests in southern Maine during the coronavirus crisis.

So far, police say they have not seen a dramatic uptick in crime as communities brace for lengthy stay-at-home orders and new societal restrictions designed to combat the spread of COVID-19.

According to jail administrators in Cumberland and York counties as well as jail statistics, the number of daily arrests is down significantly in recent weeks and most people who are booked into jail are being released on bail.

At the Cumberland County Jail, the state’s largest pretrial lockup, only 275 people were booked into jail this month through Thursday, a 48 percent drop from March 2019, when 567 people were processed after arrest. In York County, the jail population is down to roughly 110 people, a recent low-water mark for the facility. Since March 11 this year, all police departments in York County arrested 61 people, and all but a few have been bailed immediately from the Alfred jail, said York County Sheriff William L. King Jr.

“We usually have 12 to 15 (arrests) a day,” King said. “We were like, ‘Oh, my God, this is heaven.’ This allows us all time to do a bit of a reset, to get caught up.”

The Maine State Police are also altering their habits to limit contact with motorists, and in rural areas where troopers are the primary police agency to respond to calls, troopers are doing more police work over the phone, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the state police.

“Troopers are having less contact with motorists, as they’re using officer discretion in social distancing,” McCausland said. “Blatant violators are obviously getting attention, as they always do.”

In Portland, anecdotal reports and a review of the daily logs show that calls for service are relatively unchanged, but without the activity brought by downtown businesses, bars and night life, some crimes have fallen off.

“In the Old Port we’d have two or three assaults a week, because people are out at the bars,” said Lt. Robert Martin. Those have disappeared as bars have closed and restaurants moved to takeout only, or have shut down completely.

More calls are coming in for issues unrelated to crime, such as asking police to check whether someone was OK in his or her home.

“We’re getting calls of  ‘I haven’t seen the next-door neighbor in a couple days,’ and where they might have gone over and knocked, now they’re calling us,” Martin said.

Departments are still are encouraging residents to report all crimes and call whenever they need help – but the response and priorities are shifting day by day to respond to the coronavirus.

For police-related issues that don’t require an emergency response, many departments are shifting services online. In South Portland, for instance, a police officer previously would have met someone in person to take a report of a minor crime, but now the person is asked to fill out a report online instead.

“Some of those reports are shelved for now,” said South Portland police Lt. Todd Bernard. “If someone’s bicycle was stolen, we’ll probably not get to that until this is over. We’re prioritizing.”

The way police have to do things one day may change the next morning, Bernard said, so Chief Timothy Sheehan sends departmentwide emails every day highlighting coronavirus developments and any operational changes for the officers on patrol.

“There has not been any directive for us to not do our job,” Bernard said. “(The chief) wants us to use our head.”

Another change has been the elimination of classroom work, or “roll call” as it’s typically shown in popular media, Bernard said. Whereas police would meet in the same room together before the start of a shift to discuss the day’s events and priorities for the shift ahead, now officers clock in electronically and spend minimal time in the station.

“You log on to the scheduling software, you see where you’re assigned, you grab your body camera and stuff, and out the door you go,” Bernard said. “What we want to do is keep as many officers healthy for as long as we can. The longer we can keep them healthy, then the less we have to rely on mutual aid.”

Fewer people are staffing the department’s walk-in lobby from the same room, and all transactions with the public at the front desk are conducted through a divider.

It will take time to fully understand whether crime dropped during the lockdown, or if more offenses resulted in summonses, which are tracked by the Maine Judicial Branch. Even under regular circumstances, summons violations take time to be processed through the court records system, as the court date for a summons can be months after the date it was issued.

The smaller jail populations also take some of the pressure off corrections staff. Both jails have been plagued by short staffing in recent years, and before the coronavirus, Cumberland County saw a spike in the number of times corrections officers were forced into working overtime shifts, although it’s unclear yet whether the reduced jail population has changed the need for mandatory overtime.

King said one tactic that has helped keep the jail population low was an order issued by District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz that will permit people to delay serving their sentences if they previously were given a date to report to jail. King said people are still required to show up at the facility and check in with staff to document that the person complied with court directives to serve the time.

Some police anticipated a spike in domestic violence arrests, as more people are forced to spend time in close quarters, but in Westbrook, the number of DV-related charges has remained mostly flat, said Police Chief Janine Roberts.

During the first 13 days of March, Westbrook officers answered 14 calls related to domestic violence and related issues such as harassment, terrorizing or threatening behavior, and made four arrests for domestic violence assault.

Between March 14 and March 26, officers responded to 16 domestic violence or related calls, and made three domestic-violence assault arrests and one arrest for harassment, Roberts said. The three arrests in the most recent period also spanned the gamut, including one arrest of a woman who allegedly abused a man, one of a man who allegedly abused a woman, and one of an adult autistic man who allegedly assaulted his mother, Roberts said in an email.

“We, like all other law enforcement agencies, are practicing discretion in relation to physically arresting individuals and criminally summonsing them,” Roberts said.


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