Portland Police Chief James Craig

Portland Police Chief James Craig. photo/Brandon McKenney
Portland Police Chief James Craig. photo/Brandon McKenney



Dope dealers, gun thugs and wannabe gangstas beware: there’s a new top cop in town.

This past spring, James Craig became Portland’s new police chief. A native of Detroit, where he began his lengthy law enforcement career, Craig, 52, spent 28 years with the Los Angeles Police Department before moving to Maine to take this job.

To do so, he also took a big pay cut. His annual salary in Portland is $91,000, about half the $170,000 he made as a captain with the L.A.P.D.. Granted, he’s now in command of about half as many officers (160) than he oversaw in L.A.. And the risk of being run over by a drunken celebrity is considerably lower here.

Craig and his wife and stepdaughter live in Portland and intend to buy a house in the city. We interviewed Chief Craig at police headquarters in late May.

— Chris Busby  


The Bollard: I understand you’re a man of strong religious faith. Have you found a church here?

Chief Craig: I have not. I am a man of strong [religious faith]. I believe that God has blessed me with this position, and I really believe that it’s not by accident that I ended up here in Portland, Maine.

I haven’t really found a church, and I think in this position, because I’m a police chief for all of the Portland community, I’m going to be able to be open, visit different churches and different congregations. That’s important to me.

An individual’s relationship with God is just that, it’s individual, and so … a faith, or a particular place where I worship, is really not as important as my personal relationship. 


Are you a supporter of the death penalty?

A supporter of the death penalty? That’s an interesting question, and a highly political . I am a supporter of justice. And certainly, as a law enforcement officer, I enforce the law. Those decisions are well beyond me, at my level. I support that when a person commits a crime that they’re arrested and that they’re treated with the highest dignity and respect.

So I know I’m not giving you a very direct answer, but whatever the courts say is allowed, you know, I support our judicial system.


Would you support any additional gun control measures? Could we expect you to be an advocate for additional gun control measures here in Maine?

I don’t know a lot [about gun control laws in Maine]. I think that the gun laws here in Maine, well, they’re certainly more liberal than they are in California. I also know that the level of violent crime here is nowhere near what it is in California.

I haven’t made a decision. I know that there are a lot of folks here that get concealed weapons permits, and for probably all good reasons. I think it’s important that the appropriate background [checks] are conducted on individuals applying for permits. I certainly wouldn’t want to approve a permit for someone who has had a questionable background, particularly one that involves any violent crime.    


Do you have a position on medical marijuana? Do you think it would be problematic for you, as a police chief, to have marijuana dispensaries? Would it make it more difficult for you to do your job?

Well, you know what, I don’t know what the position here in the state is on medical marijuana. Again, just like the death penalty, if in fact it’s the law that there [is] lawful dispensing of marijuana, we, I, will follow the law. I don’t know if it will make it any more difficult to police. Certainly if there are sanctions in place and the courts have said that it is OK — at this point it’s still illegal, and we will enforce the law.  


Is stopping recreational use of marijuana a high priority for your department? Should we look into decriminalization?

I don’t know how much time the department has spent on, as you describe, recreational [use]…. There are a lot of things that I think police officers should not necessarily be engaged in [enforcing]. I’m not saying that’s not one of them. Again, the law dictates that, and at this particular point in time, the use of marijuana is still a crime. I know in the city of Los Angeles, in California, simple possession of marijuana is an infraction, so that certainly makes a difference.

I am concerned about the sale of drugs and the use of many drugs, and what impact that has on our community. And also excessive use of alcohol. One of things that I’m most concerned about is the time officers spend dealing [with] and addressing intoxicated persons that are laying out in the street. I’m certain that all community members here in Portland would rather their police department be involved in more critical activities.

Now, certainly that doesn’t negate that if an individual is involved in criminal behavior and drunk and laid out, that’s different. We should be involved in that. But just simply an individual that’s under the influence of alcohol, that’s laid out on the street, there should be some other social service agency that can handle that situation and transport that person to a facility where they can get help.

One of the things I do want to look at from a problem-solving point [of view] is what we can do together with other social services, maybe some of the medical institutions, how we can better address this problem.


How do you think the department, or maybe the city in general, can do a better job dealing with people who have a mental illness and are causing problems as a result?

Certainly that is an issue and it’s certainly a concern … especially as it relates to violent crime.

One of the things we look at is, are they a danger to themselves? Dangerous to others? Can they care for themself? Those are the things we need to take a look at, especially when we talk about violent behavior. When they’re non-violent, certainly we should try to take some steps to work with them. Just like with the intoxicated person that’s laid out on the street, we need to be about the business of working in collaboration with the social service agencies to try to find a way we can handle this problem.


Members of the Sudanese community have been raising concerns that some of the crimes that have been committed against community members have not been fully investigated, or investigated with the rigor that’s necessary. Do you think there’s any legitimacy to those complaints?

Well, I can tell you I don’t agree that the department’s not doing enough. I’ve taken a look at several of these cases. The department, in my estimation, during my short time here, has done a phenomenal job investigating crimes.

Unfortunately, a tragic incident that involved a young man [James Angelo] that was killed outside Mercy Hospital, it was a tragic situation. It will always be my hope that we get information quickly so we can bring resolution. There was a reward offered, as you know, but no one has called with information, and the information that we’ve gotten certainly hasn’t been information that could lead us to the identification of a suspect. 

There’s no secret that the majority of our crimes — especially when we talk about the crime of homicide — the majority of these crimes are solved because we get information from the public. Now, what I do believe is that someone, somewhere, possibly in the Sudanese community or a neighboring community, knows who did this. And one of the things I’m looking for is getting some good information so that we can identify and bring this person to justice.

I also know that there’s a strained relationship right now between the Sudanese community and the police department. I have taken personal steps in trying to broker open lines of communication. On my second day on the job I met with leadership from the Sudanese community, followed up with a three-and-a-half-hour meeting on a weekend to talk about a number of issues and to reassure the Sudanese community that I am a police chief for all of the communities and I will ensure we will do everything we can to investigate those crimes that are out there.

But I also know we’ve got to have open lines of communication. And when you work in communities where there is good communication, typically we get information.


Has the Sudanese community been too hesitant to provide information in the past?

Well, I’m not going to be critical of the Sudanese community. Certainly there are strained relations and there is probably a reluctance on their part to talk to the police. It’s shared responsibility. We have to foster good will. We have to foster an open dialogue with the community to get that community to trust us and to talk. So it’s really a shared relationship.

I think that if there is someone in the Sudanese community — which I believe there’s someone in that community who knows something — they should talk to us. They can talk to me. You know, I’m the new guy on the block, and certainly I’m making some great efforts, I think, to open the doors of communication.     


There’s a rumor going around town that the weapon found with David Okot [the Sudanese man shot dead by Portland police in April] matches the gun that was used in the Angelo murder. Is that something you can comment on?

I don’t talk about pending investigations. That’s one rumor I have not heard.


Do we have any kind of gang problem or gang issues in Portland?

I have had some conversations with some of our federal partners, some of our investigative staff here at the Portland P.D., and there is an element of gang activity. I wouldn’t say that it’s a critical situation. I think there are individuals who would like to be gang members and who are playing around with the notion of gang banging, but my message to those individuals is we will not tolerate that. We have a zero tolerance for violent — and I put emphasis on the word violent — criminal behavior.

I don’t think it’s a problem, but I think it’s something we should be attentive to.


There’s a sense among the rank-and-file officers that they’re really excited to have someone new come in. Do you see yourself playing a role of, not so much cleaning house, but doing away with some of the old tensions and politics that were at play within the department?    

Well, I can tell you I have a very high regard for the men and women in the Portland Police Department. I’m excited and humbled to be the chief to lead this fine department. But it is true that the folks that are out doing the hard work everyday were in need, and wanted, change. They absolutely were looking for change.

Some of the early things that I took on, even the revision to the hat policy, the wearing of the hat — this is what would appear to be a small thing, but it was a big thing to the officers. Because when the officers get out of the police car and they’re involved in an operational situation, that’s one less thing they need to worry about. What they need to worry about and focus on is stabilizing an incident, let’s say. Removing the hats or modifying the policy, that went a long way.

I will tell you that the men and women here have been nothing but supportive of me. We’re also looking at a schedule change, one that was well overdue in this organization. We have officers that are working what they refer to as ‘teams’ or shifts, and they don’t see weekends for months because the schedule doesn’t allow that. The only time they see a weekend is if they’re on vacation. Everyone needs to have downtime, or an opportunity to spend quality time with your family. How do you spend quality time with your family when you’re always working on the weekend?    

I don’t want to send the wrong message. What I am looking to do is creating, with the help of the men and women who work here, a schedule that first and foremost does not compromise our service delivery to the community, but also balances a schedule that really gives officers adequate time off. It can be accomplished on both ends.

You talk about leadership. I get the good sense here that there were things that the officers wanted that frankly just didn’t happen. And so, coming in new, with a fresh set of eyes, I’m not married to anything, so I can say, ‘Well, yeah, let’s try this.’ My leadership has and will continue to be one of inclusion, someone who listens to the rank-and-file, and while I certainly can’t do everything, [among] the things I can have an immediate impact on, I will [do].

Because let’s face it, when officers — the most important resource, the people that the community here in Portland needs everyday — if [they] feel that the management and the executive level is not taking care of them, how can we expect them to appropriately take care of our community? And the community is critical. That’s who we work for. This is the community’s police department. I’m a strong believer in that. So I want to make sure that they have the very best officers out there responding and providing services.


How are the staffing levels here? Do you feel like you have enough officers at present, or do you need more?

Well, certainly we always want more. But I can tell you the staffing level is sufficient. I am looking at ways to be more efficient at the way we handle calls. At our staffing levels right now, the community is not in any danger of not being served.

It would be easy for me to say, ‘Yes, I want more.’ What police chief wouldn’t want more? But I’m also sensitive to our budgetary situation here in the city of Portland. And so instead of asking for more, what can we do to be more efficient? 


What was it like for you to be an officer in Los Angeles when the whole gangsta rap controversy erupted?

I started off as an officer when gang banging, as it’s commonly referred to in Los Angeles, was kind of in full swing, in the early ’80s. We’re talking about the hip hop culture and some of the inappropriate things they were saying about ‘kill the police’ or negatively referring to women. Certainly that may have had an impact on some.

But I was part of an anti-gang unit early in my career in Los Angeles, so I got to understand the gang culture pretty quick. One thing that really jumped out that I’ll never forget is that many of these young people that are misguided just didn’t have role models, there was no mentor relationship. Many of them fell into gangs because they found what many of them described as love from the gang. But they didn’t get love from their parents, if they even knew who their parents were. They didn’t get love from school administrators. The only love that they felt was love from their homeboys or homegirls, as it’s called.

So, we, the police and schools, needed to do something different. I saw a dramatic change in gangsterism, if you will…. By way of example, in my last assignment, 12 square miles, with a population of 190,000 residents, we had 9,000 documented gang members — 9,000, I did say 9,000. And when we break it down in terms of active gangs — it’s safe to say that there were, I don’t know, five, six, seven real active gangs; many more gangs than that — you may have two or three feuds going on at any given time. A lot of it was over turf, a lot of it was over just the illegal sale of drugs, because they were fighting over territory.

But one thing that I did see in the L.A.P.D. under Chief Bratton, we did more work with our federal partners, we were more engaged in community policing. I saw an area, a .8-square-mile area that was a very violent area, where community residents felt like they were under siege — couldn’t leave their homes, couldn’t walk their dogs or their children in the park — I’d seen that area change. It was really through the hard work of the men and women I had an opportunity to lead, but also the relationships we built. We built some very positive relationships.

We saw a significant decline in some of that violent activity. An area that it was not uncommon to see a homicide once or twice a month, a drive-by shooting once a week or twice a week, to an area that went, at one point recently, to not having a homicide in about 10 months. Very dramatic change, and it only happened because of the relationships.

So when I hear the Sudanese community feel and make comments that they’re not safe, the good news is that they will be safe, they will feel safe, because we’re going to build a relationship with the Sudanese community [in which] we’re working together toward a common goal.

But to your specific question … it’s a good possibility that some of that inappropriate hip hop music contributed to it, but what really contributed to it was the fact you had a gang culture, and the influence that gangs have on young people. 


As you probably are aware, one of your predecessors in this position, Chief Chitwood, was really into the media —  he liked to make a lot of appearances and call press conferences and so forth. Can we expect to see you on TV a lot? Is that your style as well, or do you think you’ll be more like Chief Burton and stay out of the spotlight?

Well, I’m not a Chief Chitwood and I’m not a Chief Burton, I’m Chief Craig. I like the media. Certainly they serve a very critical role in communicating with the same public we provide service to, so I do see it as an opportunity for me to showcase the great work by the men and women of the department. It also gives me an opportunity to communicate with the public on critical situations or incidents that may occur.

In terms of self-promotion, I would never, ever want to be seen in the media as a self-promoter, because that’s not what I’m about. And I’m not suggesting that either one [of my predecessors] was a self-promoter. But I do believe in the value attached to the media, so when the right opportunity presents itself … I would never, ever shy away from an opportunity to do that.

You might find me somewhere in the middle. I don’t know. I’ll leave that to you to judge. What do you think so far? What are your thoughts now?


So far so good.


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