PORTLAND, Maine — City councilors here plan to establish a committee charged with combating racism in policing and municipal functions.
Mayor Kate Snyder said she would appoint representatives specializing in housing, health care, employment, public safety, education, homelessness and community organizing among other areas. They’ll be tasked with “engaging the public in a community conversation regarding systemic racism” and making recommendations to city government.
Councilors expressed support for the proposal, some with reservations. Councilor Tae Chong said convening experts from multiple fields for a committee to combat racism may be too broad a task. He said he’s concerned it could result in a “superficial recommendation.”
“I’ve seen this play out where nothing really comes forward and it just becomes what’s been rehashed over and over,” Chong said.
City officials have heard local calls to decrease police funding and reallocate money to social services at more than a dozen rallies in the Portland area in the last month — part of a national uprising for racial justice sparked by the police killings of unarmed Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Local advocates also have called for the dismissal of City Manager Jon Jennings, whose city budgets have increased police funding while decreasing funding for social services.
Several councilors praised Portland Police Chief Frank Clark and the department in particular while expounding on a need to examine policing, citing its use of force and racial disparities in Portland’s arrest rates.
Councilor Belinda Ray said that she has friends in the police force who are “serving this community honorably” and that she wants to support them.
“I don’t see a future in which we do not have a regulatory body that is enforcing rules and laws,” Ray said. “I see a need for a continuance of a police force, whether it’s called a police force or what.”
Councilor Justin Costa said it was important not to “be overly prescriptive” about rethinking law enforcement in the city. He prefers to create a group with a broad section of stakeholders from communities than put reform solely in the hands of the council.
“There is an obvious and legitimate concern with law enforcement throughout the country and how that impacts these issues, and there are also other concerns about law enforcement more broadly and how that has become the tool to deal with things like mental health and substance abuse, and how it interacts with poverty,” Costa said.
Councilor Jill Duson said that she wants to be careful not to exclude Maine or the city of Portland from the effects of institutional racism.
“I want to be careful not to be describing my own city as ‘not as bad as everybody else’,” said Duson, one of three Black city councilors. “There’s no such thing as good slave masters.”
Councilor Pious Ali said that he has drafted a resolution declaring that “racism is a public health crisis” and will be working with Snyder to fold some of its provisions into the mayor’s resolution.
The council plans to vote on the resolution July 13. Snyder said the members of the committee could be named by Aug. 3.