Criminologist warns against racial stereotyping after Portland shooting

Posted July 12, 2012, at 6:36 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — One of Portland’s top criminologists said Thursday area residents should be careful not to use Wednesday morning’s triple shooting to justify racial stereotyping.

In the incident, which took place around 1 a.m. Wednesday near 105 India St., three white men were shot while two men police described as “black or Asian” were seen running from the scene in a westerly direction down Congress Street. Of the victims, Matthew Blanchard, 24, died from his wounds at the scene, while 20-year-old John Howard and 24-year-old Joshua Hersom were taken to the hospital for surgery and are expected to recover.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told reporters the two men witnesses reported running from the location could be suspects or simply additional witnesses and investigators are trying to find them.

Dr. James Messerschmidt, chairman of the University of Southern Maine’s criminology department, said Thursday that Portland residents should be careful not to leap to the conclusion that the two men being sought by police are guilty of crime.

“It’s easy to automatically point the finger,” Messerschmidt said. “It could have been two black kids just out running — maybe they heard shots and just wanted to get away. People immediately assume … that they’re suspects.”

“If two white people had been seen running near the scene, they wouldn’t immediately be seen as suspects, and the media wouldn’t report that ‘two white people had been running from the scene,’” he continued.

Messerschmidt said signs that witnesses “unjustifiably” associate blacks with crime can be seen in the news frequently, noting the case of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and was unarmed when he was shot by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman in February.

“A black kid with a hoodie on is seen as a criminal and a white kid with a hoodie on is seen as a hipster,” Messerschmidt said.

A more justifiable assumption to make about the crime, he said, would be that masculinity played a role in the shooting. Police say witnesses reported hearing an argument transpire between the victims and unknown other individuals before gunfire was heard.

Messerschmidt said males often grow up believing they must resort to violence to resolve problems or protect their honor, although he said he has no direct knowledge of the Wednesday morning shooting specifically.

“That’s the way most killings begin, is through an argument,” he said. “What happens, if it’s between males in particular, is an escalation of what I call ‘masculinity challenges.’”