For the second time in two years, a Winthrop lawmaker is proposing legislation to combat racial profiling in Maine by requiring all law enforcement agencies to collect and analyze the demographic data of people they stop.

But a representative from the Maine State Police who testified Tuesday pointed to potential difficulties in rolling out such a system, saying that officers should not be left to guess someone’s race or ethnicity, which if recorded incorrectly, could anger the public and engender further distrust of police.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, first proposed such a data-collection system in 2019 as part of an anti-racial profiling bill that called for the data collection and also officially prohibited such discriminatory police practices. But the data-based underpinnings of the bill were stripped out and replaced with a directive for the Attorney General’s Office to study options on how to move forward – a process that has been delayed four months since the Legislature adjourned because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hickman, one of only a few black lawmakers in Maine, testified Tuesday that the time has come for the state to act on issues of racial injustice and policing.

“We all know law enforcement officers to be hardworking men and women who protect and serve, even when their own lives are on the line,” Hickman said during his testimony Tuesday. “But when even one of their colleagues engages in discriminatory profiling tactics, whether it is conscious or subconscious, the resulting loss of confidence erodes the trust and integrity necessary to be effective in their roles.”

Gov. Janet Mills signed the watered-down bill into law, but the standardized data-collection aspect – which researchers and policymakers rely upon to make sound judgments about whether someone’s perceived race, gender, ethnicity, or other characteristic was a driving factor in a police action – was kicked down the road.

The attorney general’s report was sent to legislators on March 16, and points to California and Connecticut as having model policies. Both took years to implement and involved people from communities who have historically suffered from biased policing. Those states also built into their laws a process to evaluate the data and more accurately determine whether it was truly a bias-motivated action, or if some other factor contributed to the police stop.

Any legislation that is brought forward also will have to address Maine’s fragmented and inconsistent police data systems. Not every department uses the same back-end software to track arrests and citations, and until recently, all traffic tickets were still processed on paper, making large-scale data analysis costly and cumbersome, if not impossible. Officers also do not always fill out driver demographic information when they write a citation, necessitating a law to force compliance.

Some law enforcement representatives opposed Hickman’s original bill, saying the measure was unneeded because such bias-based stops don’t occur in Maine. But researchers have found deep disparities in justice outcomes for Maine’s non-white populations.

At the hearing Tuesday, Major Christopher Grotton of the Maine State Police said that although he is eager to improve police procedures and better serve the community, he also expressed concern about the logistics of having police ask demographic questions roadside during a traffic stop.

“I think the process needs to be clear, because if there’s going to be a mandate that law enforcement accurately collect this data, we don’t want to indicate a person’s race based on an assumption in the middle of the night and later on, we’re wrong and someone’s offended,” Grotton said. “I think we all need to be prepared that that will be a sensitive topic.”

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