In recent weeks, protests against police brutality have gripped the nation. The brutal response from the Trump Administration and Democratic mayors and governors has transformed American politics. The previously unthinkable has become necessary.
The two largest cities in the country, New York and Los Angeles, are both slated to cut police budgets. In Minneapolis, where the protests began, the city council voted to disband the police department. Here in Maine, after days of sustained protest in Portland and sporadic demonstrations elsewhere, Black Lives Matter and the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America have demanded a series of structural reforms, including defunding police.
Before the protests, however, a different policing controversy was developing in Maine. On May 14, the two largest newspapers in Maine both reported on a lawsuit filed by a police whistleblower. Maine State Trooper George Loder alleged that the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC) — Maine’s node in the National Network of Fusion Centers set up along with the Department of Homeland Security in the mid-2000s — had spied on peace and environmental activists, maintained an illegal database of gun owners, and violated privacy laws concerning data retention and sharing. Loder tried to work through internal channels and he was punished for it. He claims he was demoted and transferred.
The overlap of the nationwide crisis over police brutality and the scandal surrounding the analysis center raises a possibility for Maine to end an opaque and ill-understood aspect of our police agencies: surveillance. We do not know what information the Maine Information and Analysis Center is gathering and for what purposes. We do know that the Maine State Police have refused to answer when asked whether they use facial recognition systems.
We know that former Gov. Paul LePage made the center a centerpiece of his counter drug strategies. We know from research on other jurisdictions that fusion centers are mixed up in aggressive policing that manages the misery of the country’s most neglected communities and most marginalized populations.
We also know that fusion centers are a failed policy. A 2012 U.S. Senate investigation co-chaired by ultraconservative then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, found that fusion centers are incompetent and mismanaged. The Senate could not find any fusion center “reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat…[or any] contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.” It did, however, find a chronic over-reporting of dubious information, misappropriation of funds, and accounting mechanisms so lax that the Department of Homeland Security could not tell Congress how much money they’ve invested in fusion centers.
Fusion centers have also been implicated in the surveillance of constitutionally protected political activity across the spectrum. Most of this intelligence gathering appears to be relatively innocuous but some of it is directly connected to the aggressive disruption of protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. All of this spying is authoritarianism that has no place in a democracy.
We need to act now. Democratic state Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell was the first in the Legislature to call for action. She was soon joined by Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, Rep. Harold Stewart, R-Presque Isle, and Patrick Corey, R-Windham. Legislators aim to question Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck and exercise oversight through the Government Oversight Committee.
These are good first steps but legislators can and should go further.
The allegations of the Loder suit are sufficient to warrant a full investigation. The new political reality unfolding around us should embolden legislators. The goal of the investigation should be to build the case to close the Maine Information and Analysis Center, not regulate it. This would send a powerful message to the nation. Maine should confront mass surveillance out of respect for black life and to ensure the freedoms of all Mainers.
Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and author of “ Pacifying the Homeland.”