AUGUSTA — A bill that would ban racial or religious profiling ran into opposition from police agencies at a legislative hearing Monday.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Monmouth, also would expand training and require Maine’s attorney general to collect data on arrests and prosecutions to better determine the extent of the problem in Maine. Police officials, however, said that officers already are trained to avoid profiling, and that the mandates associated with the legislation could be burdensome and costly.

The issue gained renewed attention after a 2017 traffic stop on Interstate 295 in Portland, during which a Maine State Police trooper stopped a van full of immigrant workers, some of whom proved to be in the country illegally, for seat-belt violations and a cracked windshield.

A state judge later ruled the officer who made the stop acted within the law. An attorney for one of the men involved has appealed the case to the federal courts, asking that evidence from the stop, which led to the man’s deportation, be thrown out.

Several members of the Judiciary Committee and people who testified before it Monday mentioned the stop and the subsequent police video footage that was released during court proceedings in the case.

Hickman told the committee that his bill picks up on the work of a legislative advisory committee created in 2009 to address the issue of bias-based profiling. The advisory group has made recommendations for training and voluntary policies that most law enforcement agencies in Maine say they are now following. But there is little data on the occurrence of police profiling, and none of the policies advanced is mandatory.

If enacted, Maine would join about 30 other states with anti-profiling laws, according to the NAACP. Of the states banning profiling, 17 have made it a crime, but only three states – Rhode Island, Tennessee and Kansas – allow for court orders against police departments prohibiting the practice.

Hickman’s bill, L.D. 1475, would put Maine in the top tier of states with strong anti-profiling laws. His bill would require training that is now simply recommended as good policy.

“Our faith in the American criminal justice system is challenged when we cannot walk down the street, drive down an interstate, or go through an airport without being stopped merely because of the color of our skin,” said Hickman, who is African-American. Others testifying Monday said they fear for their children, who are already being discriminated against because of their skin color.

Hickman said the practice is not only painful and humiliating but could also be deadly. He referenced numerous incidents from across the country in recent years, including the shooting of unarmed black teenagers or young men by police in places such as Ferguson, Missouri – sparking the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Hickman also mentioned former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the racially charged and false statements he made about  Maine’s opioid overdose crisis, claiming that black and Hispanic people from other states were primarily responsible for trafficking drugs in Maine.

Kate Knox, the adoptive mother of two African-American children, said her 7-year-old son is increasingly aware that he is being treated differently, and often with suspicion, because of the color of his skin.

Knox said she has strict rules for him, including never playing with any toy guns – even water guns – and not wearing his sweatshirt with his hood on outside “ever.”

She said Hickman’s bill would help determine the scope of the problem of profiling in Maine and how to address it.

Other supporters, including Beth Stickney with the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, said incidents of police profiling are widespread. She detailed several incidents from Portland to Aroostook County in which police stopped and questioned people, often immigrant workers, with no indication they had committed any crimes.

“No one in Maine should be stopped and questioned or detained even momentarily by a state or local law enforcement officer because of what she or he looks like, whether native-born or from another country,” Stickney said. “Maine is facing a critical labor shortage and needs people ‘from away’ to choose to move to Maine to live and work, whether they move here from other states, or from other countries.”

Stickney said new Mainers “may well have diverse backgrounds and be people of color.” A strong anti-profiling law would send a message that Maine is welcoming to all, she said.

But opponents to the legislation, which would make bias training and data collection on arrests and prosecutions mandatory, said police in Maine already are taking precautions and are being well-trained on avoiding profiling.

York Police Chief Doug Bracy, speaking for the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said attempts to collect data could erode the public’s trust if police were expected to inquire about race or religion in the course of a traffic stop or some other encounter with a citizen or suspect.

Bracy said all police chiefs agree that profiling is an unacceptable practice, but a mandate to train officers, report and collect profiling data could be burdensome and costly. He also appeared to suggest that the problem is not extensive in Maine or lawmakers would be hearing about it more frequently.

In addition, Bracy said, some immigrants to Maine come from countries with dysfunctional governments and justice systems, which make them more skeptical and fearful of police.

“It just seems to me that we are going to create more hate and discontent and concern by the people that we are stopping with these types of questions,” Bracy said. However, he also acknowledged that police do not actually know if they are disproportionately stopping and questioning people of color more than they stop white Mainers.

Also testifying against the bill was Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, who represented the Maine Sheriffs’ Association. “Our opposition is directly related to the mandates of this bill and not its philosophy,” Merry said. “Maine sheriffs stand united in our position that profiling is unacceptable in any capacity.”

Still, Merry said the mandates in the bill would cost state, county and local governments additional money.

Were the law enacted, it would put new training requirements on all 164 law enforcement agencies in Maine, said John Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which trains state and local police officers.

Rogers, who spoke neither for nor against the bill on behalf of the Maine Department of Public Safety, said the measure would affect 3,680 law enforcement officials in Maine, while requiring data collection from “literally hundreds of thousands of police-public contacts.”

The bill faces additional scrutiny during a work session before the committee scheduled for May 20. The committee will vote on its recommendation on the bill before sending it to the full Legislature for consideration in the weeks ahead.

Correction: This story was updated at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 14, 2019, to correct Beth Stickney’s organization.

 

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