Portland's police chief, JAMES CRAIG, arrived last May and wasted no time in telling us the often-unpleasant truths about life and crime in the Forest City. A transplant from Los Angeles with years of experience dealing with gang violence, drug-related crime, and people who can't get proper mental-health services, he has publicly announced that these and other problems exist in Portland, and asked for help dealing with them. That move removed the scales from many Portlanders' eyes and outright demanded that we look those and other challenges directly in the face.
But he's no "Media Mike" Chitwood — he's far less inflammatory, and much more thoughtful, than the last chief many Portlanders remember (the two in the interim were quiet, if not silent) — and he's not even close to declaring his efforts a success. "I'm optimistic," Craig will admit, but he knows there is a lot of ground yet to cover. He has more ideas, seemingly all the time, to help achieve these solutions, and, for a man whose career has been spent wearing a gun and carrying handcuffs, almost none of them involve arresting people or creating new laws. Rather, they're about drawing different groups of people — including immigrants and students, two groups that have traditionally had difficult dealings with the police — into discussions and activities with the police, sharing time together.
It is true that he has brought aspects of big-city policing to our small burg. Having seen how well Tasers can help defuse situations with distraught people, he introduced them, complete with a trial run and among the strictest guidelines in the country. It was not a slam-dunk proposal, but his moderate approach — including his insistence that no officer would carry a Taser without special training — quieted many potential critics long enough for the officers to demonstrate that they would not Taser people willy-nilly, as we might have feared from watching trigger-happy cops on television.
Craig brought in CompStat, a computerized tracking system that shows when and where crimes occur, and meetings at which he and other department leaders regularly review the information. It helps him decide where to allot resources, and gives the senior lead officers in each neighborhood (also a Craig idea) a real leg up in spotting trouble and stopping it before it gets out of hand.
He has announced that this year the department will focus on gangs, graffiti, and drugs, linking them not only to each other but to street robberies and car and home burglaries that dramatically increase people's fear of crime.
Which gets at the question that seems to be on Craig's mind all the time: Having assured himself that the department is working hard at keeping people safe, he wonders whether the public perception is changing: "Do people feel safer?" If not, he suggests, then the police have to work all the harder.
Look for upcoming efforts including expanding the Police Athletic League to non-sports activities for kids and teens (including possible a late-night cybercafe during the summer), and a play by Portland officers about relations between them and community members — inspired by a similar play put on for Craig and others by Portland High School students.
JUSTIN ALFOND | state senator, District 8 | Portland's financially savvy progressive voice in Augusta
JOHN ANTON | city councilor, at large | A straight-talker who understands the city's planning woes
JILL BARKLEY | domestic-violence prevention advocate; Dyke March organizer; future politician | Fiercely standing up for what she believes
BEN CHIPMAN | charter commission member | Trying to write Green influence into Portland's new charter
KEVIN DONOGHUE | city councilor, District 1 (Old Port/Munjoy Hill) | Seeking sustainability, the realistic way
JOE GRAY JR. | city manager, Portland | Running the circus
DAVE MARSHALL | city councilor, District 2 (West End) | A voice for the arts on the city council
DONNA MCNEIL | director, Maine Arts Commission | Promoting all the arts, throughout all of Maine
JAMES MORSE SR. | superintendent, Portland public schools | Doing the difficult math on the school budget
THE NO ON 1 TEAM | Jesse Connolly, Pat Peard, Mary Bonauto, Betsy Smith, and 267,785 voters | Still standing up for what's right
CHELLIE PINGREE | 1st District Congresswoman | She's not from Portland, but she's our voice in DC
HANNAH PINGREE | speaker, Maine House of Representatives | She's not from Portland either, but her influence has serious reach too
DIANE RUSSELL | state representative, District 120 | Walking the walk with her constituents, in Augusta and at Colucci's
DAN SKOLNIK | city councilor, District 3 (Libbytown) | Reminding people that politics is not always polite
JENNA VENDIL | school committee member, District 1 (Old Port/Munjoy Hill) | Leading Portland's next generation by example