As June approaches, Maine enters the thick of budget-and-town-meeting season.

I genuinely love the democratic nature of this process, as loud and messy as it is. And long. A lot of our state’s town halls and old buildings don’t have air conditioning. That’s one piece of evidence for global warming, at least – maybe back in Colonial times, June weather lent itself to stuffing the voting population into a single building. Or maybe the meetings were a lot sparser when only property-owning white men could vote.

It can be a frustrating process, too, for the same reason it’s a wonderful one. I’m on my town school board, and the public gets to pick over every piece of the budget. And they do. Down to the crayons. But what I find frustrating – other than the lengthy meetings in uncomfortable chairs – is that this same scrutiny is so rarely applied to other large items in the town’s budget. I am speaking, of course, of police departments.

Like a school, a police department budget is a taxpayer investment. And I just don’t think we, the taxpayers of Maine, are getting our money’s worth. Criticizing, or even questioning, the police budget is often a bit of a political third rail, the idea being that if you cut the police budget in order to move funds into other programs or investments, you’re opening the floodgates to crime. Because police solve crime. Right?

Wrong. In 2022, the most recent year I could find data for, only 40% of offenses in Maine were cleared.

For reporting purposes, a crime is considered “cleared” when a law enforcement agency has identified the offender, there is enough evidence to charge them and they are taken into custody. The arrest of one person may clear several crimes, or a single crime may be cleared by the arrest of several people. There are also situations in which a crime may be considered “exceptionally cleared,” most of which involve the death of the suspect or lack of prosecution.

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For “violent crimes” – a category containing murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery – only 53.58% of those reported incidents were cleared in 2022. So if you commit a violent crime in Maine, you have a coin-flip chance at getting away with it.

Sex offenses have a 28% statewide clearance rate. I’ll say that again: 28% of reported sex offenses in Maine in 2022 resulted in the offender being brought into custody. This is already an underreported crime, and I don’t blame survivors for not reporting. Why would anyone want to go through the hell of marching themselves down to the police station and telling their trauma to a bunch of strangers if there’s only a 28% chance the person who assaulted them would see a legal consequence?

Obviously, clearance rates vary from town to town. For example, my home of Wiscasset has a clearance rate of 55.8%, which it achieved with a budget of $678,000. The Portland Police Department, serving the biggest city in the state, had a fiscal year 2022 budget of $15,049,863, with which it achieved a clearance rate of 33%.

In 2022, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety statistics, the Portland Police Department had 29 rapes reported. Zero were cleared. No arrests. The reason I focus on those sexual assault rates are because every time I suggest cutting police budgets, someone always argues: “Well, who will help you if you’re sexually assaulted?” And the answer is: probably not law enforcement.

Because solving crime isn’t their main job. Maintaining a certain kind of order is. We think they solve crimes because we are constantly exposed to media painting it that way. Don’t get me wrong, I like “Law and Order: SVU” as much as the next girl, but if you report a rape to the police, the chance that you get a dogged warrior for justice like Detective Olivia Benson is a lot lower than the chance your case gets filed away in a cabinet somewhere.

You know what kind of crime has the highest clearance rate? Law enforcement officers killed or assaulted. And sure, that might be because a law enforcement officer is automatically present during the crime, which means it’s less work for them to locate the offender. But it could also be that law enforcement officers value their own lives and safety more than the citizens they serve.

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Some people will argue that these sorts of numbers indicate we need to give more money to the police, not less. We can and should have that discussion.

But I believe the evidence indicates that alternate investments of taxpayer money would have a better rate of return, if by “rate of return” we mean “lower crime rate.” (And I do want to mention that Maine does have a very low overall crime rate.)

How about peeling off some of that police budget and allocating it to supportive housing? Sexual assault response services? Addiction treatment? You know, things that are proven to lower crime and make our towns safer places to live. The safest communities aren’t the places with the most cops. They’re the places with the most resources. Let’s budget for that.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
themainemillennial@gmail.com
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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