Student protesters are joined by police June 4 at the South Portland police station in a demonstration against institutional racism. City officials have since announced the pending creation of a human rights commission to root out racism and other inequities in city departments. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Cities and towns all across Maine are facing hard questions about how to eliminate the racial bias that’s built into policing.

If they are looking for a model, South Portland might have one.

The city is considering creating a local Human Rights Commission that would examine claims of discrimination. As proposed, seed money for the commission would come from $25,000 diverted from the Police Department budget, believed to be the first such reallocation in Maine since the in-custody killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

But this effort is not hostile to the Police Department.

“My idea is not to work against police,” Councilor Deqa Dhalac told the Press Herald the day after the panel’s pending creation was announced. “I want the police to be involved. I want this to be a community-building commission.”

South Portland Police Chief Tim Sheehan has pledged to work with the commission and has provided statistics that document disproportionate numbers of arrests by the city’s police. A report prepared for the South Portland City Council by Sheehan and City Manager Scott Morelli found 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. Sheehan and Morelli said the city is committed to working with the commission to look for the reasons behind those numbers.

This is not a problem that’s unique to South Portland. Just across the bridge in Portland, police report that Black people account for 16.9 percent of the arrests, while only making up 8.3 percent of the population. Nationally, Black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all people arrested in the United States in 2018, but represented only about 13 percent of the population, according to FBI crime data.

The South Portland commission would also look beyond policing to discrimination in all city departments, including hiring practices. People of color are underrepresented in city jobs despite longtime goals of improving minority hiring.

Black families report a relationship with police officers that is much different from the one that many white families have. Almost without exception, Black Americans can tell stories about the times they were watched by police, stopped and questioned unnecessarily, sometimes even subjected to rough treatment. These experiences are so common, Black parents feel the need to sit their children down for “the talk” because they fear that an interaction with a police officer by their child could end their lives.

In response to the national protests, there is pressure on Congress and state legislatures to pass laws that will root out and end discriminatory policing. But law enforcement is primarily the responsibility of local governments, so real change is possible on the local level.

South Portland is showing how people can work together to take on a difficult problem without being defensive. Other Maine communities should follow this example.


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