AUGUSTA — Officials in Augusta say the city can do more to end implicit bias and foster increased diversity and inclusion of all people.

Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind participates in an Augusta City Council goal-setting event in January at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

Accordingly. Augusta may team up with other central Maine communities to bring about change.

While city officials stressed that staff members are not knowingly biased and area municipalities are not doing something wrong, more training is needed to overcome structural racism.

Eric Lind, Augusta’s Ward 4 city councilor, proposed in January the city increase training in diversity and inclusion. Other city councilors said they supported the idea.

Discussing the topic last week, councilors noted the issue is more timely due to the Black Lives Matter protests spreading across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis.

Susan Robertson, human resources director and assistant city manager, said when Augusta staff members are hired, they are informed of the city’s focus on nondiscrimination in employment, and also undergo annual harassment training.

She said harassment training includes information on the importance of diversity, but that subject and inclusion should be the focus of more education.

Robertston said the city should consider having employees take part in that kind of training offered by the Maine Municipal Association.

Additionally, she said, Hallowell City Manager Nate Rudy has floated the idea that central Maine municipalities — including Augusta, Gardiner, Hallowell, Waterville and Winthrop — partner to create a training group focused on diversity and inclusion.

“One of the other things, in terms of training, we have available coming up, potentially, is after all the turmoil in the horrible event that has occurred with Mr. Floyd, (Rudy) made a suggestion it would be good to have some inclusion and diversity training going forward. He suggested a working group,” Robertson told city councilors last week.

“If we want to begin to break down what really are years of peoples’ development, as far as how they approach things and implicit bias and things like that, I do think it needs to be a continuous move and a refresher to make a real change.”

Rudy said Monday he has reached out to municipal leaders throughout the area, and all who have responded have shown interest in the idea.

“In order to make the type of institutional progress that we’re becoming increasingly aware is necessary for us, not just with police departments but our whole approach to municipal government, is something that takes a concerted effort over time,” Rudy said.

“My impression is everyone agrees we need to have this conversation in our respective communities and look for ways to heal and make progress toward making sure everyone feels welcomed and included.”

“Implicit bias” refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner, according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

In response to Floyd’s death, Augusta city councilors last week also discussed the city Police Department’s policies on use of force.

Police Chief Jared Mills said his department, like others in Maine, follows policies set by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. He said the policies require officers use the least force needed to bring a situation under control or a suspect into custody.

City councilors praised Augusta’s police officers for what they said was a low-key approach at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in the city.

City Manager William Bridgeo said complaints about Augusta officers using excessive force are rare.

“I don’t remember the last time I was approached by a citizen or council member with a complaint about an excessive use of force on the part of one of our police officers, or that an officer is violent or a bully,” Bridgeo said.

He said the city’s hiring process for police officers seeks to weed out officers who appear to be into the adrenaline rush of the job or are into any form of violence, placing high value on officers who are attracted to the public service aspects of the job.

Lind said he felt it important to have a discussion about the city’s focus on diversity and inclusion training.

“I really feel if we’re going to grow as a city, we need to be diverse and the most important piece, the toughest part, is to make sure we’re inclusive, that we include everyone,” Lind said.

“I want to make sure we’re purposeful in that regard. Inclusion is really making sure everybody is heard, everybody is respected, everybody is empowered. It isn’t just tolerance. It’s actually elevating everybody in the room.”

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