As you’ve probably heard, a recent study conducted by the University of Southern Maine and Northeastern University found that 17% of Portlands traffic arrests between 2018 and 2020 were traffic arrests of Black people, despite Black people making up only 5% of the city’s population.

If you’re Black in Portland, that means youre three times more likely to be arrested by the police than a white person, and more so in cases when the police officer initiated the contact – as opposed to the cop responding to a 911 call or a citizen complaint.

But the study researchers said they found no evidence that the Portland police were engaging in a pattern of racial profiling.

A few days later, a similar study came out for South Portland, revealing that Black residents of South Portland were four times more likely to be arrested than white residents.

Again, the researchers didn’t find evidence of “bias-based policing.”

How on earth can that be, you might be wondering?


It’s very hard to prove racial bias in an individual officer’s actions – mostly because I am sure these cops don’t think they are biased at all. 

I’m an optimist and tend to see the best in people, and I do genuinely think that the absolute vast majority of Maine cops have a heart that’s in the right place and they want to protect and serve their community as best they can. No cop is going to say: “Well, I pulled this guy over because he was being suspiciously African American today.” That’s why, to see disparities, you have to zoom out and study patterns like this study did.

Portland is 83% white. South Portland is 88% white. The state of Maine as a whole is 94% white. That’s a blizzard-whiteout level of white people. So people of color, and Black people in particular, stick out in a crowd more. 

Did the cops pull over Black people at a higher rate because Black people are more likely to be noticed by cops in these cities, cops who might then notice they’re going above the speed limit or have a brake light out, or other things that might lead to lights in the rearview? Only 3% of Portland Police officers are not white. That’s five people.

Let me remind you of an incident Ive written about before. I was raised in Maine by good Maine liberals. Real “judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin” type of parents. If my parents had ever thought I was treating a Black person differently from a white person, they probably would have revisited their anti-corporal punishment stance.

But about 10 years ago, when I was in college, a friend and I were walking around Portland. A group of white guys across the street catcalled us. (I was a lot prettier then.) I remember feeling vaguely annoyed, as one does, but nothing beyond the level of a strong eye-roll. We continued down our way and a few blocks later, a group of Black guys catcalled us. And the first reaction I felt was a jolt of fear. 


Fortunately (thank you, anxiety disorder), I tend to overanalyze and notice everything my brain does. And because they happened in quick succession, I was able to take a step back and ask: Hey, why did I react differently to these people based on their race?

If those two incidents had not happened in such close succession, I might not have even noticed the difference in my reaction. And I could have justified feeling the fear. After all, it’s scary to be a young woman and have a group of guys hollering about your body. (P.S. To men: Don’t do it.) Just like I’m sure the cops can justify all their traffic stops and arrests. But as any recovering alcoholic knows, just because you can retroactively justify the actions you’ve taken doesn’t mean they were right in the first place.

If you grow up watching movies and TV shows where the good guys are white and the bad guys are Black, brown, Asian, foreign or otherized in some way, you’re going to absorb that. If you grow up seeing news broadcasts and stories about crime in big cities with B-roll footage of Black people, your brain is going to subconsciously make associations.

I don’t know what we need to do in order to fix this policing problem. I will happily defer to the experts on that one. But the first step to fixing a problem is admitting it exists. (I do know that for sure.) On the bright side, these studies were commissioned by the police departments of the cities themselves, which shows that they have a desire to at least take the first step.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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