Portland police bemoan staff shortages as violent crimes, drug overdoses spike

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Just two days after Portland police held a press conference to address an increase in violent crime, another late-night shooting on Wharf Street left two people hospitalized.

As of last week, police said, there had been 43 shootings, resulting in two deaths and four arrests, and 17 stabbings in the city this year. Stabbings are up 31 percent from last year, while shootings have doubled.

Portland crime map
A heatmap of violent crime in Portland, released Sept. 9 by the Police Department. (Courtesy Portland PD)

Interim Police Chief Heath Gorham shared the Police Department’s plan of action in the Sept. 9 press conference. He noted Major Robert Martin had said it’s the most violent period that he’s seen in his 34-year career in law enforcement, and added there’s no single factor to blame.

A major concern, however, is lack of staffing. Police and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office are down 25 and 87 officers respectively, and both are unable to hire enough people to catch up. 

Brendan McQuade, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine, said lack of staffing for law enforcement will likely be a pattern that continues.

“I have students every year who had entered USM wanting to be cops and decide not to be after they studied what policing actually is,” McQuade said.

He pointed to the murder of George Floyd in 2020 as a reason that fewer people want to become police officers. Gorham mentioned it at the press conference as well, citing a dive in the public perception of police officers that has left officers feeling “not supported.” 

Pre-pandemic, Gorham said, the department averaged about 300 applicants per hiring cycle. In the last cycle, however, there were only 89 applicants.

Understaffing in the department and at the county jail means police are limited in the arrests they can make. As a result, Gorham said, suspected criminals remain in the community and their behaviors escalate.

“I know there are instances where if we had arrested somebody and taken them to jail – removed them from that situation – the crimes would not have escalated,” he said.

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said there’s been a sense of lawlessness in the neighborhood for as long as a decade, and it’s gotten worse since the jail has been limited due to COVID-19 and now because of a staffing shortage.

Part of the Police Department’s plan to address the spike in crime is to limit security details, allowing more two-person patrols to be out in the city’s neighborhoods – particularly in Bayside, for example, the city’s poorest neighborhood.

Michniewicz said 50 percent of the recent stabbings have been on the corner of Oxford and Cedar Streets, outside of the Oxford Street Shelter. She said she doesn’t think anyone is in favor of policing as the preferred solution to social problems like housing, mental health, and substance abuse treatment, but in this case, increased patrols can be a short-term help.

“This is an acute situation, and increased patrols, where officers are maintaining a presence and getting out of their cars, may help prevent the dangerous crime we’re seeing,” Michniewicz said.

She also said it’s frustrating that it may have taken recent violent events for it to happen. In the spring when she was noticing worrying trends – more erratic behavior and more open display of weapons, for example – Michniewicz said she organized a meeting with police to see how it would be addressed. She was told there wasn’t much else the department or city could do that wasn’t already being done.

“I told them I thought someone was going to get killed this summer,” Michniewicz said. 

Gorham said the number of unhoused people in Bayside and the unavailability of treatment beds has been a challenge for the Police Department. He said understaffing leaves police unable to make arrests for “quality-of-life crimes” like criminal trespassing and drinking in public.

According to McQuade, the recent spike in violence isn’t unique to Portland or Maine, but is occurring nationally. He said ripple effects from the coronavirus pandemic are the “obvious cause”; the pandemic is still impacting essentially every part of life, he said, and the stress and displacement that came along with it will continue to have an impact.

District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said when law enforcement’s ability to do its job is limited, repercussions include a feeling of lawlessness in the community.

Sahrbeck said the pandemic is, however, another unquantifiable factor. He said there have been cases that have come into his office that may not have happened at all if it hadn’t been for the pandemic putting people more on edge.

Drug use could be another factor, the DA said. The use of methamphetamines has risen since 2019, Sahrbeck said, and behavior as a result of methamphetamine use typically tends to be more violent.

“I can’t tell you that every type of violence we’ve had is because people are using methamphetamines,” he said, “but I think that might play into why we’re seeing the spike in violent behavior today.”

Simultaneously with the spike in violent crime, there’s been a spike in overdoses in Portland.

City councilors discussed the impact of drug use on recent violent crime incidents at the Public Safety and Health and Human Services meeting on Sept. 13, but there was no clear sense at the time of whether there’s a correlation between violent crimes and overdoses.

Councilors asked HHS to look more closely into the relationship between the two after committee Chair Tae Chong noted there was an uptick in overdoses and needle exchanges in May, June, July, and August, and since those months coincided with the increase in crime.

“We’re seeing a spike in overdoses by almost 50 percent in the last four months and we’re seeing more violence in the last four months,” Chong said.

The number of overdoses from January-August this year rose to 422, compared with 286 last year. Portland averaged 60 overdose responses per month between May and August this year, compared with an average of 40 in the same period last year.

Heath Gorham
Portland interim Police Chief Heath Gorham.

Public safety, school officials to explore active-shooter scenarios

Amid reactions to an uptick in violent crime in Portland, school officials and the Police Department are set to hold a meeting this week to dry-run active shooter scenarios.

Shootings have doubled in Portland in comparison with last year, and a recent shooting in Riverton Park resulted in a bullet piercing the wall of a room where a child slept. Following the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May that took the lives of students and school staff, discussions about keeping Portland children safe took first priority at the most recent Public Safety and Health and Human Services Committee meeting.

“Even prior to Uvalde, we understood that we needed to have more communication,” (between law enforcement and the School Department), interim Police Chief Heath Gorham said. The departments have been meeting monthly to keep the communication open. 

In a June committee meeting, Gorham and Fire Chief Kevin Gautreau said they felt confident about Portland’s ability to effectively respond to a potential active shooter threat in its schools, but that there is always room to improve and be more prepared.

Gorham on Sept. 13 detailed the additional efforts the Police Department has made to work alongside the Portland Public Schools.

He said the Sept. 22 exercise will run through various active-scenarios. The Police Department’s training sergeant is coordinating the so-called tabletop session, which is intended to clearly define the role of each department and how such events would be managed in Portland.

In addition, officers who are assigned to areas that have schools have had school tours to familiarize themselves with building layouts and major locations like the administrative office, cafeteria, and gym.

School resource officers were removed from Portland schools by the School Board in 2020. In July, Gorham said the lack of SROs could be a setback when it comes to threat assessment

“What I would hope for in the months ahead,” District 5 City Councilor Mark Dion said in the committee meeting, “is that the leaders of the Police Department and the schools consider opportunities or avenues to develop paths for relationships between police and the youth who attend our schools.”

— Evan Edmonds