Police agencies from across Maine took largely neutral positions Thursday on a bill that would require them to collect demographic information on all traffic stops in an effort to identify and root out racial or biased-based profiling.

But several law enforcement members raised concerns about the feasibility of collecting accurate data.

Maine State Police Maj. Brian Scott and Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton were among several law enforcement officers offering testimony to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Both Scott and Morton said their agencies support efforts to eliminate the profiling that has become increasingly apparent in Maine and across the nation in recent years.

“While we support the overall concept of the information collection and being able to later mine that data to determine if there are any areas of concern regarding profiling, we do have some apprehensiveness and some questions with the bill as written,” Scott said.

The measure, sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, requires police to collect information on the race, color, ethnicity, gender and age of drivers in all traffic stops they make, regardless of whether a citation is issued or an arrest is made. The bill calls for the information to be collected by the officer making the stop, and it does not require the subject of the stop to disclose any of the information.

Scott said accurate data on traffic stops would be welcomed, but as the bill requires officers to use their own subjective judgment to determine race and ethnicity, which are not listed on drivers’ licenses, the data may not be very reliable.

“Officers do not have the ability to accurately determine a person’s ethnicity and race by looking at them,” Scott said. “Using the perception and observation of the officer will result in inaccurate data as the officers will have to guess in an effort to try to capture the required information.”

Morton said the problems with the bill lie in the “mechanics of the language and not in the goal of identifying and eliminating profiling.”

Talbot Ross introduced an amendment to the bill that requires the identity of the officer involved in a stop to be included in data reported to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The office would produce an annual public report on the data, but that report would not disclose the identity of police involved in any patterns of profiling.

Talbot Ross said her bill was not intended to open up a debate about whether profiling is a problem in Maine.

“Instead this measure recognizes that we do not have access to the objective data on the subject and it gives the attorney general the tools he has recommended we create in order to compile this data moving forward,” she said.

But some members of the committee asked whether the bill was actually asking police to do what it sought to prevent, in that by guessing the subject of a traffic stop’s ethnicity or race an officer would be profiling the person.

“I do think the importance of eliminating profiling in Maine is a very important topic,” said Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, “But I do question how we are going about getting this data. Having officers put a position where they are asking these questions or having to think of these things in their mind and make these generalizations – is that not profiling in itself? Are we not asking these officers to actually profile?”

However, Talbot Ross said the goal of collecting the data from the officer’s perspective was so patterns of profiling might be identified and addressed.

Scott, the state police major, told lawmakers that state police alone make about 75,000 traffic stops each year in Maine, excluding the more than 100,000 regulatory stops conducted by commercial vehicle enforcement officers who check tractor-trailers for safety violations.

He said the state currently has no centralized database where the information could be captured or retained, but “it should be kind of easy to see we would need an electronic database for this purpose.”

A nearly identical version of the bill, sponsored by former state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, was before the committee last summer. That legislation followed passage of a bill in 2019 that prohibited racial profiling by police.

The committee unanimously approved Hickman’s bill in July 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers never returned for a special session before a new Legislature was elected in November, and the bill died before a vote on enactment could be taken.

Hickman was term-limited and could not seek re-election 2020. Talbot Ross said she reintroduced the bill because she felt it was an important component for ending profiling, although that was not the bill’s aim.

“The focus is really about gathering the data and not about whether racial profiling happens,” Talbot Ross said.

If the new measure is approved by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Janet Mills, police would begin logging the data in July 2023.

Attorney General Aaron Frey said having access to the data on officers and agencies would allow his office to intervene if a pattern of profiling emerged with a particular officer or department. He also said the data would be useful in furthering police training on implicit bias and protecting against profiling.

While there was no testimony against the measure, several organizations, including the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Prosecutors Association, offered their support for the bill.

“We need data collection because we manage what we measure,” said Meagan Sway, the policy director of the ACLU. “To understand the role that racial and other identity profiling plays in law enforcement decision making we have to get basic information about what police are doing and with whom.”

The bill will be the subject of a committee work session in the days ahead. The committee could amend the bill before voting on a recommendation for its approval or rejection by the full Legislature later this year.

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