LEWISTON — A proposal to prohibit local law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status was rejected by the City Council following fiery exchanges Tuesday.

The proposed ordinance, brought forward by Councilor Safiya Khalid, would have prohibited Lewiston police officers from “inquiring into the immigration status of any person and from engaging in activities for the purpose of ascertaining the immigration status of any person,” but will not move forward to a public hearing after a majority of the council did not support it.

At several points, the discussion prompted heated debate between officials, including Khalid and Mayor Mark Cayer, who was among four officials opposed to the ordinance.

During the meeting, police Chief David St. Pierre said asking about immigration status is not a practice of the department and it’s something that rarely comes up in day-to-day operations.

While those opposed to the proposal said it amounted to a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, Khalid pushed back, pointing out that the council and Police Department are largely white, and therefore not qualified to state that it’s not a problem in Lewiston.

“How do you know there isn’t a problem if you are not marginalized, if you are not a (person of color)?” she asked.

Cayer, along with Councilors Lee Clement, Michel Lajoie and Stephanie Gelinas said they do not believe Lewiston police have inherent racist attitudes, and that Lewiston police policies recently went under the microscope, including the introduction of body cameras.

“All I see is a solution looking for a problem, a problem I’ve not seen in law enforcement,” Clement said, adding that inquiring about immigration status is “something that’s not done by local law enforcement. They have enough on their plates.”

Cayer said Tuesday that he’s been involved in local politics for more than a decade, and “never once had a citizen or noncitizen approach me with any issues relating to the Police Department and being treated unfairly.”

Cayer and Clement are former police officers.

Leading up to the meeting, police officials and the city attorney drafted memos that expressed concerns with the proposal, some of which were repeated Tuesday by St. Pierre.

In his memo, St. Pierre said the ordinance would have “no real value in that it does not change the way our police department conducts business.”

He said on rare occasion, an arrest is made by Lewiston police for a felony unrelated to immigration status and the department learns the suspect may be in the country illegally. Only then would it be reported to the proper federal authorities, he said.

The memo also said that “the language, in my opinion, portrays our local police department as one that perhaps demonstrates racist attitude, beliefs or policies which is certainly not accurate and would be destructive to officer morale.”

In response Tuesday, Khalid spoke out against St. Pierre’s statement, arguing that the chief is against the proposal simply because it would “make his officers feel bad.”

“If that makes the officers feel bad they should find a new line of work,” she said.

Khalid said the proposal at least deserved to move ahead for the purposes of a public hearing, and said similar local ordinances have been upheld across the country.

Councilor Caleb Roebuck also supported moving the proposal forward, stating that Lewiston has made progress in creating more equitable policies and that “having something like this on the books could build bridges.”

“If this is something that’s already practiced, I don’t see an issue codifying it,” he said regarding the proposed ordinance.

He said while campaigning he spoke to a former Lewiston police officer who shared with him racist views and that he has lingering concerns about how police business was conducted prior to when officers began wearing body cameras.

In his memo, St. Pierre pointed out that all officers now wear body cameras and interactions with the public are recorded, and he said the department encourages citizens to file complaints if they believe their civil rights have been violated.

At one point in her response to the council, Khalid said it’s “undeniable” that people in Lewiston have previously suffered racist treatment from local law enforcement, which led Cayer to almost cut off her prepared remarks. She said a public hearing would allow citizens the opportunity to share whether it is an issue or not.

“I in no way believe we have racist officers in our department,” Cayer said. “If there is ever an issue I have confidence in our command staff to deal with it.”

St. Pierre told officials the department has a “biased-based policing” policy in place that prohibits officers from profiling individuals based solely on a common trait or group.

“Simply detaining a person in the absence of criminal conduct for the sole purposes of ascertaining an individual’s immigration status could be construed as bias-based profiling,” he said, adding that profiling “alienates citizens and fosters distrust of law enforcement by the community.”


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