With a recent spike in violent crimes, Portland police are on high alert.
“We’ve had a real struggle with five shootings in six days,” interim police Chief F. Heath Gorham said Friday. “Our police officers on the street are dealing with a sense of lawlessness.”
That was before yet another shooting in the city’s Old Port that left a 34-year-old man and 22-year-old woman in serious condition at Maine Medical Center.
But police said the recent violence is just the tip of the iceberg. Shootings and stabbings, for instance, are up dramatically compared with last year.
This year, the department is seeing a lot of violent crimes happening especially around the bayside neighborhood. That’s right by Deering Oaks Park, where 31-year-old Walter Omal of Portland was fatally wounded in a shooting last week. Amin Awies Mohamed, 38, of Roxbury, Massachusetts, has been charged with murder in that shooting.
This is concerning because not only are there a lot of homes and apartments nearby, but people experiencing homelessness living in the park. Gorham calls that a ‘huge concern.’
Police said they have been struggling with staff shortages, with 25 officer openings. So to beef up patrols, the department is shifting around existing staff.
That means officers will not be able to help with outside details for things like traffic and construction. But they still will be helping with things like mass gatherings or certain events.
Gorham said officers will be patrolling places in the city where they have seen the most violence.
“The goal is to show a presence to let the public understand we’re out there,” Gorham said. “We understand the importance and we understand that they are concerned about what they’re seeing in the community.”
Part of the problem also is the staff shortage at the Cumberland County Jail, which has stopped accepting new people who have been arrested, except for those charged with violent crimes.
“There’s got to be a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel or I will lose them,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said. “My fear is if we lose too many more [employees] then we really have to look at shutting down the jail completely and I don’t want to get to that point.”
Mayor Kate Snyder said city leaders are taking the violence seriously, and plans are being developed to better meet the needs of the community.
“I urge people to be cautious and to be thoughtful about … where they are,” Mayor Snyder said.
Despite what’s happened recently, she said Portland is still a safe city.
“But because we’re seeing things here in Portland, Maine, that we have not seen before, we want to make sure that this is stemmed and that it doesn’t persist and continue,” Snyder said.
BDN writer Christopher Burns contributed to this report.