PORTLAND, Maine — Portland’s black population is underrepresented on the city’s police force and overrepresented in the arrest logs, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told an audience of more than 50 people Monday night.
Of Portland’s approximately 66,000 residents, 7 percent are black, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.
Sauschuck said on Monday night that out of his 163 police officers, only three, or less than 2 percent, are black. Of the 3,500-plus arrests his department made in 2013, he said, 18 percent were arrests of black people.
The chief was speaking at an event held at the Portland Public Library and hosted in part by the local branch of the NAACP. The Monday night talk by Sauschuck was the second in a series of public city discussions stemming from the police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, and subsequent clashes between authorities and protesters there.
“[These statistics] show your disproportionate arrest numbers right here. There’s no debating that,” Sauschuck said on Monday night. “Do I think we have a pervasive racial profiling issue on the Portland Police Department? No, I do not. Has it ever happened? There’s no doubt in my mind. … One instance is too many. There’s no excusing that.”
Nationwide trends of high arrest rates among blacks and low black representations among police and other government agencies have garnered increased attention in the country since a white Ferguson police officer shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, last month.
The shooting sparked protests in and around Ferguson that continue to this day, and police response to the unrest using military surplus equipment triggered widespread scrutiny of police militarization not only in Ferguson, but in cities all across America.
Sauschuck spoke openly about the military surplus equipment his department has, telling audience members that the force has two armored vehicles — a 1981 Peacekeeper and a 2012 Bearcat — as well as 30 M-16 rifles, two M-14 rifles and 20 red dot scopes.
As recently as Saturday, a Ferguson police officer was allegedly shot in the arm at the local community center by what investigators claim was a black suspect, followed by the unrelated arrests of seven protesters for lobbing water bottles at police on Sunday.
While nothing so extreme has taken place in Portland, several attendees at Monday night’s event relayed to Sauschuck anecdotes of city police instigating physical confrontations with blacks who they said weren’t doing anything wrong.
But although the chief offered to talk one-on-one with the aggrieved audience members and personally research what happened with their friends and loved ones, some in the crowd were put off by Sauschuck’s insistence racial profiling by Portland cops isn’t “pervasive.”
“I guess it depends on how you define ‘pervasive,’” said Meaghan LaSala, who attended the forum. “Seeing 18 percent of the arrests as black people is really troubling.”
Chaka-Khan Gordon told Sauschuck: “What I’m hearing you say is, ‘We’re willing to listen to your complaints, but we’re fine.’ How open really are you to what people are saying tonight?”
The chief said allegations of police misconduct are investigated internally, and those investigations are vetted by an external citizen police review committee, which reports directly to Sauschuck’s boss, Deputy City Manager — and now acting City Manager — Sheila Hill-Christian.
Sauschuck defended the department’s cache of military surplus equipment, saying criminals have carried out mass shootings around the country with similar weaponry and noting that police used the armored Bearcat to escort families away from a gunman during a standoff on Alder Street last year.
Sauschuck added — without citing specific cases, because of restrictions in the city’s personnel policies — that he has disciplined numerous officers when complaints of misbehavior have been validated.
“As a police chief, I have fired police officers. As a police chief, I have demoted supervisors. I have suspended police officers for multiple days,” Sauschuck said. “There is a process in place. It’s not simply swept under the rug and ignored.”