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Portland forum examines bias-based profiling in Maine

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Portland forum examines bias-based profiling in Maine

PORTLAND — Police and members of the public gathered last Friday to find common ground on bias-based profiling, a topic that affects Maine's diverse populations and general public safety.

In 2009, a bill was introduced in the 124th Maine Legislature to ban racial profiling. While legislators questioned whether it was really a problem in Maine, the Advisory Committee on Bias-based Profiling by Law Enforcement Officers and Law Enforcement Agencies was established to examine the question.

The committee was tasked with data collection, establishing policies and developing training to address any identified problems, and to foster a meaningful dialogue about perceptions between the public and law enforcement.

Friday's Advisory Committee forum in the Rines Auditorium at Portland Public Library drew about 60 members of the public, civil rights advocates, government officials and representatives from law enforcement agencies.

During the discussion, several people recounted how they were pulled over while driving and told their vehicles had broken tail lights, only to later discover that both taillights were completely operational. 

Newell Lewey said he felt his special Native American license plate made him a target.

"I've become 'random.' I'm about 80 percent random. That's what they tell me, that it's just random," he said.

A Latino man recalled instances of being detained for hours, notably when his passengers were African migrants. An African-American woman explained how a female officer told her she had an attitude problem because she asserted her right to not be searched.

In every testimony, the speakers said, they were released without charge. And all of them believed they were arbitrarily targeted because of their race, despite laws that require officers to have probable cause for a traffic stop.

Beyond the letter of the law, there is the issue of discretion. A presentation at the forum about public policing educated participants about the spectrum of discretion. According to McDevitt, discretion is particularly relevant when making traffic stops because it is combined with low visibility.

"We all make mistakes," said Doug Bracey, of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. "The key is not to make them more than once."

It is unknown how often bias-based profiling occurs in Maine. The Advisory Committee report filed with the Legislature in February 2012 said it was unable to collect the data because of a lack of funding. The report further noted there are 16 different vendors for data collection for over 100 agencies. 

A fund for the committee was allocated $500 for each year. The report said any effort to synthesis and analyze the data from multiple agencies was considered "too expensive," although it did not cite an exact figure or an estimate.

The committee had to apply for a grant from the Broad Reach Family & Community Services in order to fulfill one of it's mandated tasks of public education. The grant funded the forum.

According to the Advisory Committe's report, a few police departments volunteered to participate in a demo of how data might be collected. Again, lack of funding was cited as a barrier to starting the project.

Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, however, said data collection isn't everything. He said there is value in conversation between stakeholders. 

Various groups coming together to work on the issue of profiling "is unprecedented in Maine," said committee co-Chairwoman Rachel Talbot Ross, who also urged participants to make official complaints when necessary. 

Alysia Melnick of ACLU Maine offered advocacy to anyone who may be hesitant to file a complaint directly with a police department.

Talbot Ross also spoke about important strides in addressing bias-based profiling in Maine. First was establishing a definition of bias-based profiling that was exceptionally inclusive when compared to federal or other state definitions:

"Bias-based profiling occurs when stops, detentions, searches, or asset seizures and forfeiture efforts are based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, age or cultural group rather than solely on an individual's conduct and behavior or specific suspect information."

Secondly, the committee was successful in drafting a model policy. In 2011, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy adopted the policy. All police departments in Maine are required to adopt a policy banning profiling by the end of the year.

The Advisory Committee sunsets in November, and is expected to file a final report for the Legislature. Training for officers at the MCJA will begin in 2013.

Marena Blanchard is The Forecaster news assistant. She can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or mblanchard@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @soapboxnoise