Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Portland 101: Young activists explore police department

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are three streets in Portland that police lieutenant Janine Roberts won't walk down alone, learned a group of interested citizens organized by the League of Young Voters on a visit to the Portland Police Department last Wednesday.
The 26-year veteran of the force demurred when asked to name the streets, but did impart a lot of other interesting information in a 90-minute session that was the first site visit in the League's "Portland 101" series.
Designed to familiarize people with how the city functions through visits to various departments, the series is a multi-week introduction to Portland for people who want to get more involved in civic life, whether politically or otherwise. With different tours every week from now through early November, and occasional meetings to encourage participants to use social media to spread their information, Portland 101 is also a sort of boot camp for activists. The Portland Phoenix is participating in the series to spread the information participants gather even more widely, and to encourage anyone who is interested to seek more information from city staff or the League of Young Voters.
Roberts started with a brief overview of the department, which has about 145 active officers (some are on leave for military service or medical reasons; the department maxes out at 156), with another 65 civilian (non-sworn, non-badged) staffers who handle emergency communications and assist with administrative duties. There are three branches — patrol, detective, and command bureaus — the latter two of which typically work weekday business hours. (They do get called in on nights and weekends as needed if something happens that requires their skills.)
The patrol group is split into three teams, working day, evening, and midnight shifts. They cover 11 beats: six on the peninsula side of I-295 and five north and west of the highway.
Officers rotate among the three shifts, and mostly work four 10-hour days each week. Some officers do work five eight-hour days to make sure there's enough coverage at transition times. (Many officers also participate in secondary teams, for handling situations requiring special skills or equipment, including crisis negotiation, tactical response, water emergencies, bombs, and hazardous-materials incidents.) There is also a single animal-control officer.
The department responds to between 75,000 and 80,000 calls each year. "Some months can be busier than others," Roberts said. "February can be pretty slow on the night shift."
Those result in 15,000 to 18,000 reports (plus an additional 4000 accident reports annually), most of which are assigned to detectives for followup with the victim or witnesses or other agencies.
Then the meeting turned to questions on a range of topics, some of which happened during a tour of the building.
DRUGS "We have a lot of drugs in our city," Roberts said, which leads to crime because addicts need money to buy drugs. She didn't specify — and nobody asked — which drugs were most common here.
DOGS The city has three police dogs that can search for people, and three more that can search for bombs. The latter three are funded by the Transportation Security Administration because Portland is home to the jetport, a cruise-ship terminal, and train and bus terminals.
FOOT PATROLS There are foot beats in the Old Port and along Congress Street, Roberts said. In other neighborhoods, officers often try to walk parts of their areas, but that depends on how many other officers are on duty, as well as the volume of calls coming in.
PANHANDLING "Panhandling is legal; aggressive panhandling isn't," Roberts said. When police get complaints about people begging on the streets, it can be difficult for them to take any action. "We need you, as a citizen victim, to give us a statement," or there's nothing the cops can do. Even with a statement, though, nuisance crimes can be challenging to get prosecuted; police have to actively communicate with the district attorney's office to highlight problem offenders, or the DA will often opt not to prosecute.
YOUTH RELATIONS The department has a youth services officer, sponsors an "activities league" for kids to do various things (mostly sports), and school resources officers (in coordination with the school department). A "positive-ticket" program just entered the schools, in which when officers see kids doing something good (helping a peer, using a crosswalk, wearing a bike helmet, for example), they get a certificate from the police that can be redeemed for a reward (such as an ice-cream cone, a session of swimming at a community pool, or other activity). Roberts said the officers' goal is "treating the youth with respect even when we're not getting it."
DANGER TO OFFICERS Nationally, every 53 hours an officer is killed in the line of duty, Roberts said. By contrast, in Portland, once a week there's a minor injury on duty (though in 2008 and 2009 two officers were killed in service-related incidents, but both occurred while the officers were not actually on duty). Roberts and her colleagues stay conscious of the danger. "Tell him to wear his vest," she said to an attendee who mentioned that a friend was planning to become an officer.
GANGS Most of the gang activity is centered around boys and young men ages 14 to 22, and includes the Tiny Raskal Gang and the Bloods as well as other national or international gangs. There are also local "wannabe gangs" that cause havoc in some neighborhoods, she said, as well as motorcycle gangs, including the Outlaws, the Iron Horsemen, the Mountain Men, and the Hells Angels. Most gang activity involves drugs and prostitution, Roberts said.
EVIDENCE GATHERING The crimes that occupy most of the evidence technicians' time are burglaries, Roberts said. Those analyses, reports, and diagrams that people see on television shows can take days or weeks to produce accurately.
EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS Portland's building houses dispatching and 911-call answering for police, fire, and ambulance service in the Forest City as well as South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. There's a huge shelf of candy and snacks in the dispatch room.
TASERS The department is working on getting all officers certified to carry and use Tasers, after a trial run in 2009.
BECOMING AN OFFICER Candidates must pass written and physical tests, a thorough background check, a polygraph, and a medical examination, as well as complete the state's police academy. Officers must have a high-school education and a two-year college degree (a four-year degree is preferred).
GAY OFFICERS Roberts admitted she did not know every single officer well enough to give a full count, but said she knew of two openly lesbian officers and one openly lesbian civilian employee of the department; she said she knew of no openly gay men in the department.

Press Releases: Three-city news war

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Portland Press Herald is really under the gun right now, from within and without its walls.
On the inside, PPH staffers have been working without a contract since the end of June. While there have been a couple of meetings between union and company negotiators, progress is slow, according to Kathy Munroe, the administrative officer of the Portland Newspaper Guild.
One factor may be newspaper owner Richard Connor's loud and repeated announcements that his company, which also owns the Waterville-based Morning Sentinel and the Augusta-based Kennebec Journal, is profitable, that revenue is up, that circulation is up, and web traffic is climbing.
Revenue and profit information is held closely in the private company, but Audit Bureau of Circulations numbers say the circulation decline has been accelerating for three years running (6.2 percent, 7.8 percent, and 8.7 percent for the years ending in March 2009, 2010, and 2011, respectively), with now barely above 51,000 copies daily. Web-traffic stats are notoriously hard to rely on, but the Press Herald's site is no longer the top news site in the state; it is now second to the Bangor Daily News's online presence, according to Al Diamon's reporting on and other online trackers.
The union members, who collectively own 15 percent of the company, want raises. (They took a 10-percent pay cut as part of the deal that let Connor purchase the company in March 2010.) Connor just announced that he wants buyouts and layoffs because of declining advertising revenue.
He is an experienced union-buster (and has already been reducing union numbers by outsourcing five people's jobs to a call center in Central America; see "Calling MaineToday in Honduras," by Jeff Inglis, August 5). This could be a drawn-out fight that could include debates over what — and whether — profits actually exist at the paper. (Munroe says the union is able to see some revenue numbers, but not the full financial status of the company.)
While attempting to keep his staff on task, Connor is facing what may be an even bigger challenge from outside. For years now the company that owns the third-largest Maine daily newspaper (the Lewiston Sun Journal) has chipped away at the Press Herald's base with its group of Forecaster newspapers, which include a Portland edition as well as editions covering the northern and southern suburbs.
And a year ago the second-largest daily paper in the state siphoned from the PPH, when the Bangor Daily News hired away business reporter Matt Wickenheiser, and tasked him with reporting from Portland.
But in the past month, as initially reported by Al Diamon, the BDN has fully joined the fray, adding two more reporters covering southern areas of the state.
The coverage gap is closing; it's actually possible that by the end of 2011, the Press Herald will have fewer reporters on its home turf than its two chief competitors combined. (Add the BDN's three to the Forecaster's six, and you're just three shy of the pre-layoff 12PPH reporters — not counting sports or State House coverage.)

• As Colin Woodard reported in these pages on August 19 and the Blaine House announced officially last week, Governor Paul LePage has nominated one of his top advisors, Ann Robinson, to serve on the board of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. LePage's conflicts with MPBN reporters have extended from the campaign through budget season, though his proposal to remove all tax funding from the organization was shot down in the legislature. With MPBN just beginning to process applications from people who want to serve as the group's president, Robinson's nomination couldn't come at a more opportune time for the governor. While hers will not be the only voice on the board, she's certainly as well connected in the halls of power as any other member.
• Chris Cinquemani, late of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, and James O'Keefe, the selective editor of his own hidden-camera "stings" of places like Acorn and Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, recently called Lewiston Sun Journal political reporter Steve Mistler's work misleading and biased. Mistler doesn't need my — or anyone's — defense for his talented, aggressive work that seeks truth beneath misinformation from all sources. O'Keefe's allegations of media bias on the part of others are transparently distractive and simply hilariously ironic.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

We Told You So Dept: FairPoint layoffs were always part of the plan

Published in the Portland Phoenix

While FairPoint executives are saying that the 400 layoffs the company announced last week are related to "workload" and "competition," they're hoping everyone forgot that their business model — especially in northern New England — requires regular downsizing to have a prayer at success.
The North Carolina-based telecommunications company, which promised to create as many as 675 jobs starting in 2008 if it was allowed to buy Verizon's landline business in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is now getting rid of 375 jobs in those three states (and 25 jobs in other states FairPoint serves).
Back in 2007, the Portland Phoenix broke the story that FairPoint's business model contained several questionable assumptions, including that the price of gas for company vehicles would not increase for seven years, and that spending on employee salaries and benefits would stay flat as well. (See "FairPoint: No Raises For Seven Years," by Jeff Inglis, November 16, 2007.)
When that story came out, FairPoint's executive vice-president for corporate development, Walt Leach, called to clarify my initial assumption that FairPoint wasn't planning raises. Rather, he said, the company predicted that as many as four percent of its workforce would leave every year, and there were no plans to replace them. The savings from having fewer workers would provide enough money to give raises to those who stayed, Leach told me. (See "No Raises: It Gets Better," by Jeff Inglis, November 30, 2007.)
That's cold comfort for the 150 people whose jobs evaporated with less than a week's notice. Pete McLaughlin, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union representing all of the laid-off people, says FairPoint could have let them go the day of the announcement, but agreed to keep them on for a few days. Another 75 or 80 so-called "temporary" workers, hired by FairPoint to handle the transition from Verizon, hold what McLaughlin says the company calls "critical" positions. The temporary workers holding those jobs will stay on until permanent employees — another 150 of whom are also finding their jobs eliminated — are reassigned to take their places.
Temporary workers, who occupy roughly two-thirds of the jobs being eliminated, get no severance or other compensation for being let go. Adam Fisher, at the Maine Department of Labor, said his agency would be working with FairPoint to provide services such as career-center access and information about unemployment benefits and health-care coverage. McLaughlin said the AFL-CIO's "rapid-response" team is already involved helping workers prepare for their transitions.
The move has renewed criticism of FairPoint from labor sources. McLaughlin says many workers and organizers were quiet about problems they see within FairPoint before the layoffs were announced, in hopes that the company would find its way out of its struggles.
Now that it's clear FairPoint, which needed a federal court's protection to escape bankruptcy as a result of the terms of its 2008 purchase, remains in serious trouble, the critics are raising their voices once more.
"This company's been in a downward spiral," McLaughlin says, citing a "revolving door of leadership," and expressing concern that the company may never be able to emerge from its cash-flow problems.
He attributes many of the company's difficulties to the back-end management and maintenance computer system set up as part of the purchase. (Verizon refused to transfer its actual customer, technical support, and service-call database structures to FairPoint, requiring the new buyer to build its own system from the ground up to both accommodate Verizon's data and, FairPoint hoped, streamline the company's workflows.) McLaughlin says the new computer system still doesn't work efficiently, which means that the layoffs are getting rid of productive workers. "Everybody's busy . . . working overtime every day," he says. As the staff gets smaller, the workload will increase, and the inefficiencies will multiply.
McLaughlin's criticism raises significant concerns about FairPoint's ability to provide service at the level required by state regulators. Thomas Welch, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, told the Phoenix that the commission would be watching FairPoint carefully, and is prepared to issue penalties if the company fails to meet state-mandated standards for service performance.
Welch says FairPoint has been "struggling" since the takeover, and though he has seen "significantly better" outcomes this year than in the past, the company's still not where it needs to be, in terms of providing service and maintenance. He noted that LD 1466, a law passed in the most recent session of the Maine Legislature, has somewhat limited the PUC's ability to impose penalties, but hopes the remaining threat will keep FairPoint moving in the right direction. The key, he says, is to make sure "the customers don't get caught in the backwash."
FairPoint spokespeople Jeff Nevins and Meghan Woodlief did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story.