Too often, even in Maine, people whose skins are darker than average are becoming the subject of racial profiling. When law enforcement singles out suspects on the basis of skin color, attire or other superficial quality, we all lose a bit of our freedom.
Furthermore, such profiling undermines the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies because they waste their time focusing on people who are not legitimate suspects. Also, it engenders distrust and resentment of law enforcement and other governmental authority among cultural and ethnic groups, creating more divides in communities. Those victims of profiling are less likely to cooperate with authorities as witnesses and less likely to report crime. Such disenfranchisement brings outcomes that no community would want.
Some might be skeptical that profiling actually exists, especially in Maine. Those skeptics probably are not members of groups that draw law enforcement scrutiny. Those groups not only include those whose skin is darker than average, but those who are teens or young adults, men with long hair, those who drive beat-up old cars or cars with certain bumper stickers, or who drive motorcycles and wear certain clothes and maybe sport tattoos. The list goes on and on.
A recent OpEd column in The Portland Press Herald by Westbrook Police Chief William Baker and Brianna Twofoot of the Maine Civil Liberties Union asserted the reality of the problem. “Even here in Maine, people of color report being stopped or questioned while walking or driving and are sometimes left feeling humiliated, afraid or anxious,” they wrote. They cite the case of what seemed to be the “baseless interrogation of a Sudanese father walking home from work in Portland” and the “unwarranted intrusion into the life of a Salvadoran mother of two as she walked out of Hannaford’s.” They also cite a case in Washington County in which law enforcement officers were called to a bar to break up a fight “and went directly to the one native woman in the room.”
Sometimes, the apparent profiling isn’t that at all. Better and more frequent communication between law enforcement and groups within a community can end the perception of profiling when it doesn’t exist. Law enforcement agencies would do well to review their traffic stops to see if certain people are being pulled over more than others are. Some agencies have even begun hosting workshops for minority groups to teach them their rights, a proactive step that can build bridges.
A perennial Congressional bill, the End Racial Profiling Act, has been reintroduced this month. By finally defining and then making racial profiling illegal, this shameful practice will become more rare.