City and town officials across Maine are reviewing police budgets and taking a closer look at municipal policies and practices after recent killings of Black people by police have drawn widespread protests against systemic racism.

South Portland joined major cities across the nation in responding to “defund” police demands, taking $25,000 from a proposed $5.2 million police budget to create a human rights commission to root out racism and other forms of bias in city departments.

Portland, Westbrook and Biddeford officials also have begun reviewing municipal funding, policies and practices to address racism and other potential biases; and the Maine Municipal Association and the Greater Portland Council of Governments are offering diversity-related webinars in response to concerns in other communities.

South Portland’s last-minute funding transfer, though largely symbolic in a $112 million overall budget, was the council’s unanimous answer to local protests that followed George Floyd’s shocking death in Minneapolis. Councilors said the creation of a human rights commission is a promise to do much more in the future.

“It doesn’t mean we want to dismantle our police,” Councilor Deqa Dhalac said before last Tuesday’s budget vote. “We want to work (with) our police. We have to work with each and every department in our city in order for us to reach the goal that we want to reach.”

Deqa Dhalac

Deqa Dhalac Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Dhalac, who is the first African American and Muslim on the council, proposed the commission. She said she appreciates the seed money transferred from the police budget and the support offered by Police Chief Tim Sheehan.

“But also we need to know and realize the South Portland Police Department racially profiles,” said Dhalac, who is from Somalia. “The police department are great folks. But we want them to do better. So when a person like me sees a police officer behind me, I shouldn’t be afraid.”

A report from Sheehan and City Manager Scott Morelli shows that while Black people make up 3.8 percent of South Portland’s 25,500 residents, they accounted for 16.1 percent of adult arrests and summonses by city police in 2019. Across the United States, Black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all people arrested in 2018, but represented only about 13 percent of the population, according to FBI crime data.

In neighboring Portland, where Black people made up 7 to 8 percent of the city’s population from 2016 through 2019, they represented nearly 17 percent of arrests last year. Previous years showed even greater disparities, with arrest rates as high as 21 to 23 percent.

On Monday evening, the Portland City Council is scheduled to resume its discussion of how to address racial disparities in Maine’s largest city, with more than 66,000 people, and respond to widespread calls for reform.

Pious Ali Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Portland officials have received 1,500 to 2,500 emails on the subject of defunding the police department, said Councilor Pious Ali, who is from Ghana and was the first African-born Muslim to be elected to public office in Maine.

“People are responding to where we are as a country emotionally and thoughtfully,” Ali said. “I’ve heard people loud and clear. They want change, but the Council cannot do it alone.”

Ali said the council must engage the community in developing a plan to address what’s happening nationally and locally, including several protest marches held in Portland in recent weeks that highlighted what he called “deeply embedded systemic racism.”

“We have to look at our budget, but we cannot just take money away from the police,” Ali said. “I’m interested in looking at what has worked elsewhere and not making the same mistakes. I have no prescription for change yet, but whatever we do, it will have to address systemic racism.”

The Westbrook City Council is scheduled to hold a workshop July 27 to discuss police department policies and practices, and much more, said Councilor Claude Rwaganje, who is Congolese and the first African American on the council.

Claude Rwaganje Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We are hearing from constituents,” Rwaganje said. “We are going to review the policies of police and how they do actions. We will receive and review the data (on police interactions by race) and see what makes sense to address the disparities that exist.”

Rwaganje said the council has yet to discuss any impact on police funding, but it could decide to reallocate money from one department to another “at any time.”

Beyond policing, Rwaganje said, racial disparities also exist in housing, education and health care, noting that Black Mainers are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19.

Maine has the nation’s largest racial gap among COVID-19 cases, with Black or African American residents accounting for 27 percent of the cases where the race of the individual is known, despite representing just 1.4 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people. That figure rises to 33 percent – or nearly 900 of Maine’s 2,710 cases – among all cases involving Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and other people of color.

“People are just looking at the police now, but it’s the whole system,” Rwaganje said. “It’s not just criminal justice reform that’s needed. It’s social and economic justice, too.”

In Biddeford, City Manager Jim Bennett is reviewing diversity-related policies, practices and statistics for evidence of racial disparity or implicit bias in all municipal departments, including police and human resources. He plans to present recommendations for action to the mayor and city council.

“We need to understand more about how people of color and other minorities feel about the way services are provided by the city and how we can do a better job,” Bennett said. “We want to do things that are tangible and make a difference.”

Bennett noted that Biddeford’s police department is one of only four in Maine – along with Auburn, Lewiston and South Portland – that are nationally accredited after adopting best practices that include a ban on choke holds and require training for deescalation during arrests.

Biddeford’s racial disparity in arrests is lower than Portland’s and South Portland’s, but it still exists. While 2.7 percent of the city’s 21,500 residents are Black or African American, they accounted for 5.2 to 7.5 percent of arrests over the last five years.

Bennett said the city’s response could include hiring a consultant to assist in a deeper examination and expanded training on implicit bias and inclusion – an effort he led as former president of the International City and County Managers Association – and steps to increase diversity hiring in all departments.

In response to inquiries from city and town officials around the state, the Maine Municipal Association will host a live webinar Monday on cultural competency, diversity and implicit bias.

The one-hour course will help participants understand the cultural impacts of how we interact with others. It also will explain how to achieve and the benefits of a culturally competent workforce. Additional webinars will follow.

To help municipal officials in southern Maine address bias issues, the Greater Portland Council of Governments will host a summer series of webinars on racial equity with national-level presenters and local experts.

The webinars will address policy areas where city and town governments play a significant role, including land use, housing, transportation, education, social services and policing. The first webinar on July 8 will cover racial equity and systemic racism.

In South Portland, some residents wanted the council to do a lot more than fund a human rights commission before finalizing the city budget that goes into effect July 1.

Some thanked City Manager Scott Morelli for dedicating $5,000 of his merit raise to the human rights commission, bringing the total seed money to $30,000. Others still had questions about other police budget items, including handguns, Tasers and overtime pay.

“I appreciate that we’re asking you to work even harder at the end of your budget (preparation) period,” Sascha Braunig told the council during its Zoom meeting last Tuesday. “How can you say this is not the right time for more change?”

Bri Bowman urged councilors not to let procedure keep them from doing more. “The time for action is now,” she said.

Councilors heard the urgency but defended their measured approach.

Mayor Kate Lewis said residents have a right to ask tough questions about police spending, but she’s also hearing from people who work with victims of domestic violence. They fear that random cuts to the police budget could endanger women, children and other vulnerable populations.

“Please don’t fault us for not hastily starting to dismantle the police department in the matter of a week or two just to say that we did it,” said Councilor April Caricchio.

“We took some action to say, ‘We hear you.’ ” Caricchio said. “Now, let’s work together as a community and make real, lasting, responsible change over the next year.”

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:10 p.m. on June 29, 2020, to correct the scheduled date of the Westbrook City Council’s workshop.


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