Racial profiling by law enforcement is illegal in Maine, as a result of a law passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mills.

But is the law being enforced? It’s anyone’s guess. The state does not have a system of collecting demographic data on police encounters with the public that would indicate whether prohibited practices are still going on.

It’s time to take off the blindfold. Members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee should recommend passage of a bill that would require all law enforcement agencies to report demographic data of the people they stop to the Attorney General’s Office for analysis.

Knowing this information is essential to understanding the problem that Black people and other people of color face in their encounters with police in Maine. “You can’t fix what you don’t know,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, the bill’s sponsor.

There is a lot we do know about the interplay between policing and race.

An assessment by the Council on State Governments’ Justice Center, published in 2019, found that Black people accounted for 5 percent of arrests in Maine between 2008 and 2018, even though they make up only 1 percent of the state’s population.

When it came to drug offenses, the disparity was even greater, although research shows that Black and white people possess and use drugs at close to the same rate. Yet Black people represent about 8 percent of drug arrests – or eight times their proportion of the population in Maine. When researchers examined racial disproportionality among the three levels of felony drug offenses, they found that the more serious the charge, the greater the racial disparity. Black people accounted for 21 percent of Class A drug offenses, 15 percent of Class B drug offenses, and 4 percent of Class C drug offenses.

Arrest data tell only a small part of the story. Countless stories are told by people of color about being stopped and questioned by police for no apparent reason. These stops don’t result in arrest or citation, however, so without collecting demographic data, there is no way of knowing whether they are happening disproportionately to people of color.

For some reason, police agencies continue to push back on data collection. At a Judiciary Committee hearing this week, Maine State Police Chief Christopher Grotton said it would be difficult for police officers to accurately report a person’s race “based on an (officer’s) assumption in the middle of the night.”

But the state police and other agencies have no problem relying on an officer’s assumption when suspects flee, and police release descriptions that routinely includes a guess on race.

And in evaluating the prevalence of racial profiling, the officer’s perception of a suspect’s race is more relevant than the person’s actual racial identity. It’s that assumption made in the middle of the night preceding a traffic stop that the state needs to be tracking.

Data collection was stripped out of the racial profiling bill that passed last year, and the issue was studied by the Attorney General’s Office. In a report sent to legislators in March, the attorney general detailed how other states, including California and Connecticut, are able to get and analyze this information.

Getting the information is not hard, but passing the bill may not be so easy. Republicans have blocked a special session to deal with the bills left unresolved when the coronavirus struck. It’s unclear when or under what circumstances lawmakers will be called back this session.

But the Judiciary Committee can do the right thing and send Hickman’s bill to the floor with an ought-to-pass recommendation.

Until we can see the problem we won’t be able to fix it. Maine should not fly willfully blind any longer.

 


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