PORTLAND — A leader of the city’s Sudanese community this week said he has been satisfied by recent meetings with the new police chief.
Tensions between police officers and the city’s Sudanese population have been strained over the years as a result of unsolved crimes involving Sudanese immigrants and allegations of police brutality. The tension peaked April 25, when police officers responding to a report of an intoxicated man with a handgun shot and killed David Okot on the porch of a Weymouth Street building.
Police say Okot, 26, pulled the gun on them. Some Sudanese residents claim police shot Okot and then dragged his body to the sidewalk and left him there.
Okot was the third young Sudanese man to die in Portland in the past year and a half. In November 2007, Edward Okeny was found unconscious in a street in Bayside. Police could not determine whether he was beaten or fell and hit his head.
Last September, Mercy Hospital security guard James Angelo was shot in the back while patrolling a parking lot at the hospital. No arrests have been made in the case.
On Monday, Police Chief James Craig, Mayor Jill Duson, City Manager Joe Gray, Sudanese leader Angelo Okot and state Attorney General Janet Mills met in Augusta with Gov. John Baldacci to discuss the Sudanese community’s concern about violence in Portland and what is perceived as inaction on the part of police.
Angelo Okot, chairman of the Sudanese Community Association of Maine, said Tuesday that the point of meeting with police is to create a good relationship between the department and the community.
“Not just the Sudanese, that is the main thing,” he said.
Okot stressed that Sudanese leaders do not support criminal acts “in any walks of life.”
“But there should be justice for every human being,” he said.
Okot said that he hopes to have ongoing meetings with the police chief and other members of the department to work on what he described as weaknesses within the department. He said it is also important for Sudanese youth to grow comfortable with police officers.
“The chief has come up with some good ideas,” Okot said. “Like to create some soccer leagues and basketball leagues where police can play with the youth.”
Craig, who joined the department this month, also emphasized the importance of connecting with the city’s youth. He said he plans to meet with a group of Sudanese youth soon to discuss how his department works and to improve the relationship between police and youth.
Craig met with Okot and about 20 other Sudanese last weekend.
“It was a three-hour meeting,” Craig said. “We talked about vision, about youth initiatives and the possible recruitment of a Sudanese police officer.”
The meeting with the governor and Mills, Craig said, was an opportunity to brief the two officials on progress between police and the Sudanese.
Craig said the next step will be to arrange a meeting with Sudanese youth for other police officers.
“We’ll bring in officers as a way of healing and education,” he said, adding that he plans to educate himself on the Sudanese culture.
As for whether tensions had eased since David Okot’s death, Craig said he is optimistic that the dialog between him and Angelo Okot will be communicated to the rest of the community.
“I hope they are pushing down that message that we are willing and able to communicate,” he said.