PORTLAND — The Police Department is seeing more robberies involving guns this year, and police are blaming the trend on the drug culture and a growing gang mentality among the city’s youth.
Acting Police Chief Joseph Loughlin called a press conference March 6, following an early morning robbery at the Big Apple convenience store on Washington Avenue in the East End.
The clerk at the store was held up by two local teenagers, one of whom had a semi-automatic handgun that police later discovered was loaded and stolen from a home in Falmouth.
Loughlin said the robbery was disturbing for several reasons, including the use of a gun. The two boys, 16 and 17, reportedly were not satisfied with the money the clerk produced from the register after the initial threat, and threatened him again. They also stole cigarettes and other merchandise. The suspects fled when police arrived, but were captured and allegedly let loose with a lot of “gangster talk,” Loughlin said.
“‘This is what I do, I rob, I steal,'” Loughlin said, repeating one of the phrases the boys reportedly used. He said both boys have criminal records and were taken to Longcreek Youth Development Center.
While gangs are not prominent in Portland, Loughlin said part of the city’s younger generation, including some in the immigrant and refuge communities, are becoming increasingly alienated.
“They are forming small groups that band together and conduct criminal enterprise,” Loughlin said.
So, in a relatively safe city with little gang culture, where are they learning this behavior?
Television, said Loughlin, and music videos.
“It’s mimicking,” he said, adding that what police are seeing in Portland with small groups and sporadic gang-like behavior is how full-fledged gangs have taken root in other cities in the U.S.
“We do have a safe city,” said Loughlin. “We’d like to keep it that way.”
To that end, the Police Department has been making more of a presence in neighborhood Community Policing Centers as well as meeting with community groups to discuss issues. Incoming Police Chief James Craig, who has worked for the Los Angeles Police Department for two decades, has also said one of his priorities will be to “get his arms around the infant stages of gang culture” in Portland.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree announced this week that the Portland police will receive nearly $695,000 in federal funding to invest in training and personnel. The money comes from the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program.
The drug problem in Portland is something police have been talking about for years and Loughlin said a majority of burglaries and robberies can be blamed on drug addicts.
Two days before the Big Apple robbery, a man robbed the Key Bank on Brighton Avenue. Although he did not display a weapon, the man gave a threatening note to a teller and made away with an undisclosed amount of cash.
The suspect, who remains at large, is a white man in his mid-to-late 20s, about 5 feet 8 inches tall and of medium build. He was wearing a gray hoodie, blue jeans and a baseball cap. Loughlin said police have good leads and expected to make an arrest in the case.
There have been 17 robberies in Portland this year, five involving guns, compared to two robberies with guns last year at this time.
Police have also seen an upswing in burglaries and purse snatchings. On March 5, a woman walking on Pine Street in the West End noticed a man following her and, as she crossed Emery Street, was reportedly knocked to the ground and had her purse taken by the man.
On March 3, two homes in East Deering were broken into through side doors. There was nothing missing from one house. The other home owner reported small electronics, cash and checks stolen.
As always, police recommend locking up cars and homes and not leaving valuables in plain site.
The Police Department lists recent crimes and alerts on its Web site, police.portlandmaine.gov.