DEC Staff meets with Community Resource Officers

Four LPD officers on community assignment

By Mark LaFlamme, Staff Writer
Jan 31, 2010 12:01 am

LEWISTON — At the police substation on Bates Street, there are no heavy metal doors that clang shut. There is no inch-thick glass with intimidating darkness behind it.

The substation is a friendly place, with a mural of the city on one wall, warm framed pictures on others. A person could sit down for a chat here and not feel like he is in trouble.

Which is exactly what was intended.

The space near the corner of Bates and Birch streets is headquarters for the new Community Resource Team. It is home to a group of four officers assigned full time to work with the community.

Instead of racing from call to call, answering reports of burglaries, fights, barking dogs and shoplifters, these four officers dedicate all of their time to improving the quality of life of the citizens they serve.

“We’re getting back to the mindset that the police are the public and the public are the police,” says Officer Craig Johnson. “For a lot of people, interaction with police has been negative. We want to show the community that there is a lot more to what we do. We’re here to make the community stronger any way we can.”

A lot of departments claim involvement with community policing. They hold an occasional neighborhood watch meeting and have a once-a-year barbecue in a park.

In Lewiston, the ambitions for the new team are more clearly defined. They will do all of the things an officer on a beat doesn’t have time to do.

The list of projects is vast and most are under way. The officers will help children with their homework, sort out disputes between landlords and tenants, tackle trash problems, monitor empty buildings, make sure occupied buildings are up to code, work with the Somali community and learn the language.

“We’re doing pretty much all the things we got into police work for to begin with,” says Officer William Rousseau. “The hope is to identify situations before they become problems.”

Johnson and Rousseau are joined on the team by Officer Tom Murphy and Sgt. Marc Robitaille. Robitaille is the head of the group, having spent much of his nearly 20-year career working with the community, on bicycle patrol and with groups such as the DARE anti-drug program for schoolchildren.

Murphy has spent a good portion of his time working with neighborhood groups.

“He already has a lot of contacts, so he really helps us hit the ground running,” Robitaille said of Murphy.

Instead of the familiar police-versus-citizen relationship, the group hopes to have more of a give-and-take type of arrangement with the community.

In February, the four officers will be tutored in conversational Somali so they can better communicate with the immigrants. At the same time, they will be doing some tutoring of their own on a range of subjects.

Their beats will be in the schools, elderly housing facilities, businesses and even places like bowling alleys where they will participate in school events.

It’s possible for the officers to focus so acutely on this brand of policing because the department received a grant to hire more officers for street patrol. With those patrol beats covered, these four officers were freed up to work exclusively on the community front. Each volunteered for the work.

The arrangement is beneficial for police officers who work the streets, too. With four officers handling things such as neighbor disputes, children problems and similar issues, the patrol guys are free to move on to more pressing matters.

“The problem has always been that the officers have to respond to calls and it’s hard for them to be proactive under those circumstances,” Robitaille said.

Now that they know what their new jobs will entail, the officers are at work putting the finishing touches on their work space. A local woman was called in to paint the room, including a mural of the city that spreads from one wall to the next.

On Thursday, there was a minor argument about window dressing: curtains or no curtains?

But the four agree that the substation will not look like a miniature version of the police station several blocks away on Park Street.

“Let’s face it,” Robitaille said. “The police station is not always a nice place to be. This is meant to be the opposite. We want the public to come in and be comfortable here.”

In coming weeks, the officers plan to hold an open house to show off their new offices. By then, it is expected the great curtain debate will have been settled.


Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Lewiston police Officer Tom Murphy, right, consults Erin Reed of the Downtown Collaborative Office at the police substation on Bates Street. Other officers on the newly created Community Resource Team are, in back from left, Sgt Marc Robitaille, Officer Craig Johnson and Officer William Rousseau.


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