Residents urge reforms for Portland police review panel

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PORTLAND — Chairman Kelly McDonald said the Aug. 24 meeting of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee was the most well attended he has ever seen.

But that was not something he or about a dozen people in attendance viewed with pride.

“In the last nine years, I can remember two or three meetings where people have shown up, let alone spoken,” McDonald said.

The subcommittee meeting in City Hall was one of the few meetings that were fully open to the public. McDonald said most go almost immediately to executive session to discuss how police investigated complaints brought against them.

Also attending the meeting were Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, Lt. Robert Martin of the Police Department Internal Affairs Division, Anne Torregrossa of the city corporation counsel’s office, and subcommittee member Michael Harris.

It was likely the most substantive public input in the 15-year history of the subcommittee, and certainly during McDonald’s tenure: community members criticized the eligibility standards for subcommittee members, the lack of publicity for subcommittee meetings and procedures, and whether the subcommittee is truly suited to provide citizen oversight of police.

Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the city chapter of the NAACP, and a Democratic candidate in Maine House District 40, was joined by her sister, Regina Phillips, in suggesting the subcommittee allow former city employees and people who have filed complaints against police to serve on the panel.

“It feels like a punitive process to me,” Talbot Ross said. “You assume that people who have spoken up may not have the skill set or sense of judgment (to participate).”

Phillips, who directed the city Refugee Services Program before it was removed from the budget, said former city employees, including police officers, should be allowed to serve after a period of time.

The subcommittee, created by an ordinance, has six members and an alternate, and essentially meets when there are three or more complaints to review, McDonald said.

According to its annual reports, the subcommittee, which is part of the city Civil Service Commission, met four times to discuss 11 complaints in 2014 and six times to discuss 16 complaints in 2015.

McDonald said the subcommittee is required to review the process of how police handled complaints that could involve use of force, police conduct, possible civil rights violations or criminal activity.

The subcommittee checks to see if each complaint was fairly, objectively and thoroughly considered in a timely manner. Complaints are assigned to individual subcommittee members, who lead the review process, but the subcommittee is not empowered to determine if any discipline or sanctions resulting from the complaints was justified.

“We are talking about what happened, I think that provides useful input back to the police,” McDonald said.

Sanctions or discipline from complaints are made by Sauschuck, but Talbot Ross said a more effective oversight model might be to allow subcommittee members to subpeona those involved in the complaints.

McDonald noted a scheduled Sept. 14 meeting is likely to be cancelled because there is no workload, but Phillips suggested it would be an opportunity for more public engagement and education.

The public engagement level was critical to the Rev. Kenneth Lewis of Green Memorial AME Zion Church, who said the number of complaints about police conduct could be constrained because of the limited availability of complaint forms and lack of publicity about the subcommittee.

“Citizens should have the opportunity to engage the city at any touch point,” Lewis said, adding that having paper complaint forms only at police headquarters at 109 Middle St. could be counter-productive.

“I’m not quite sure why folks would lodge a complaint to the police about the police,” he said.

The city was urged to make complaint forms available at City Hall and community policing stations in the city and to standardize the paper and online forms. Additionally, Talbot Ross asked to schedule a meeting with the subcommittee and Sauschuck to look at methods of police review in other communities.

Any changes to subcommittee procedures and staffing guidelines must be enacted by the City Council, Torregrossa said.

McDonald agreed there is a need to reform the subcommittee, but recalled in 2009 a “package of ideas for City Council … that did not go anywhere.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck speaks Aug. 24 in a meeting of the Portland Citizen Review Subcommittee meeting as Anne Torregrossa of the city corporation counsel office listens.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.