Following nightly protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Maine law enforcement leaders said they want to end racism in policing. But police do not have a comprehensive way to track their treatment of racial minorities. In fact, they have opposed efforts to compile such information about race in the past.
Gathering that information would be a first step for state leaders to know how extensive bias is in Maine policing, so they could address it.
“There is no place for racism and police brutality in Maine or in our country,” four major law enforcement groups said in a joint statement Wednesday. Officers “can and must do better.”
While police in other states collect information about the racial makeup of people they arrest, search and use force against, Maine police agencies generally don’t track the information consistently or in a way that can be fully analyzed. Sometimes they don’t track it at all.
On Wednesday, Michael Sauschuck, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, described Maine’s data collection system as “fractured,” given different records management systems and approaches at law enforcement agencies across the state.
“I think data is power. It’s important to know the citizens that we’re working with. So ideally we would have a lot of that information. We don’t have that now,” said Sauschuck, a former police chief in Portland.
Watch: Police departments speak on recent Portland protests
But just over a year ago, the Department of Public Safety did not throw its support behind a bill that sought to fill the gaps in knowledge, and other Maine law enforcement groups directly opposed it.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, one of the few black members of the Maine House, and called for measures to address racial profiling. LD 1475 proposed requiring that law enforcement agencies receive anti-profiling training and that they set up procedures to investigate and respond to complaints of profiling.
It also directed police to collect data about people’s race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or religion, so the Maine attorney general’s office could examine whether police agencies were profiling residents.
With the data, the bill proposed, the attorney general’s office could figure out whether Maine police were disproportionately pulling minorities over for traffic stops, for example, or if police were more likely to arrest minorities found with drugs or other contraband. Both Maine and national studies have shown that black people are arrested and jailed at disproportionate rates. Black people accounted for 1.6 percent of the state’s population but 5 percent of all Maine arrests in 2018, according to a report published last fall.
“While we hear similar stories [of racial profiling] over and over, there is currently no mechanism to track this data,” Julia Brown, the advocacy and outreach attorney at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, testified in a May 2019 public hearing on the bill.
Beth Stickney, the organization’s founding executive director, cited eight examples of apparent profiling reported to the group in her testimony on behalf of the Maine Business Immigation Coalition, such as when a police officer driving by a University of Maine at Farmington building stopped to question the Latino men washing its windows, when an officer stopped to question Latino men in Aroostook County who were having a cookout in their front yard, or when an officer pulled over an Indian technology worker but never said the reason for the traffic stop and didn’t give a ticket.
Groups representing law enforcement, however, pushed back. While they condemned racial profiling, they said an integrated data system would require costly investments of time and money, and ultimately might not be helpful. They pointed out that officials have been debating whether and how to analyze the disparities in treatment of minorities in Maine for years.
“Even if someone has the time and wherewithal to sift through it all and look for patterns, what will it prove? It is one thing to identify correlations in statistical data, but quite another thing to prove cause and effect,” Doug Bracy, police chief for the town of York, said on behalf of the Maine Law Enforcement Coalition in opposition to the bill.
John Rogers, as director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, represented the Department of Public Safety before the Legislature and testified neither for nor against the bill. However, he said he would rather teach officers to not profile people than create an “incredibly cost prohibitive” coordinated system to track statistics. He pointed out that forcing an officer to record someone’s race might put them in the uncomfortable position of having to ask or guess.
The Maine Sheriffs’ Association opposed the bill because of the cost it would incur to counties.
Watch: Police push back on protesters on Franklin Street in Portland
Ultimately, lawmakers supported the bill’s prohibition on profiling and agreed that officers should receive anti-profiling education. But they removed the requirement that police agencies collect racial and other kinds of data during their policing activities.
Instead, legislators directed the Maine attorney general’s office to research ways to compile profiling data. In March, as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Legislature, Attorney General Aaron Frey submitted his office’s five-page review, which drew little, if any, attention. The Bangor Daily News requested and received a copy on Wednesday.
The attorney general’s office put forward three options for Maine lawmakers to consider, including emulating states such as California or Connecticut, which require officers to compile and report racial data. Logging the information takes less than two minutes for officers after completing a traffic stop, and there are federal grants available to help offset start-up costs — up to $375,000 per year for qualifying states, the attorney general’s report said. It cost approximately $750,000 to build Connecticut’s system.
The state could also require law enforcement agencies to report complaints of racial profiling to the Maine attorney general’s office, thereby creating the state’s first central repository of complaints.
But creating a centralized repository wouldn’t necessarily require an act of the Legislature. Under current law, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy can already mandate that law enforcement agencies report racial profiling complaints to the academy or the attorney general, according to the attorney general’s report.
The academy also has the authority to require police agencies to make certain reports on an annual basis, so the Legislature or the academy could request that police add complaints about racial profiling to their annual reports.
Police are also already required to submit some data to the Maine State Police for specific categories of crimes, but it isn’t always analyzed.
“You have a citation. There is a box there that’s not always filled in, truth be told, that would have the race of an individual. There are oftentimes blocks in individual reports that have that information in there as well. But I wouldn’t call that empirical evidence or information,” Sauschuck said when asked during a Wednesday press conference whether the Maine State Police keeps racial data on those it stops, cites and arrests. As commissioner, Sauschuck oversees the state police, the largest police department in Maine.
The Cumberland County district attorney’s office, which handles approximately 10,000 cases each year, does not track racial data, either, but “it’s something that we’ve been looking into since I became DA,” said Jonathan Sahrbeck, who was elected district attorney in 2018.
Similarly, there is no central repository tracking the race of people whom police use force against, said Marc Malon, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, though individual agencies keep reports on the incidents in which they may list people’s race.
Still, police appear to collect enough data to show that minorities in Maine account for a disproportionate share of arrests.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center sifted through thousands of Maine arrest records at the Department of Public Safety, publishing a report last year. While many records did not have race information, it found that, in 2018, black people accounted for 5 percent of all arrests, 16 percent of arrests for felony Class A offenses, 21 percent of Class A drug arrests and 15 percent of Class B drug arrests — despite studies showing that black and white Americans use and sell drugs at similar rates. Black people make up less than 2 percent of Maine’s population.
They also accounted for 11 percent of the state’s prison population and tended to receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts for similar crimes.
“People of color in our state, but especially Black people, are disproportionately arrested, punished, and left to suffer the years of disenfranchisement that comes with a criminal record — including dire consequences for employment, income, and housing,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said in its comments to the attorney general.
“Every comprehensive study has shown that people of color are no more likely than whites to be carrying drugs or other contraband in their vehicles. However, because they are stopped and searched for drugs at grossly disproportionate rates, they are also arrested and incarcerated at grossly disproportionate rates,” the organization said.
Watch: Hundreds march through downtown to protest racial inequality