Portland City Manager Jon Jennings takes a knee and shakes hands with an organizer outside police headquarters on Middle Street June 2 during the city’s fifth anti-racism rally since the death of George Floyd. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — City Manager Jon Jennings last week said he would consult privately with police before selecting a civilian for an internal police panel that evaluates use of force by city officers.

But the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee recommended more public input and transparency ahead of any appointments. The committee insisted last week on adding two independent civilians to the department’s internal use-of-force review process, with approval from city council.

The subcommittee, or PCRS, has been tasked in recent months to provide critical oversight to the city’s police department, which has been pushed to publicize and re-evaluate its use-of-force policies after local and national protests sparked by the police killings of unarmed Black Americans around the country.

The subcommittee was established in 2001 and convenes monthly. It requested months ago to add two civilians to Portland Police Department’s internal use-of-force review committee. The city council should approve those members, the panel recommended, and receive some police training before reviewing internal complaints filed against the agency.

Maria Testa, a writer and member of the police review committee, said that Jennings’ plan would maintain the status quo, effectively giving the police the ability to handpick their own auditor.

“I think we have to get past this model [where] an authority receives a recommendation, changes it, and makes the decision unilaterally to give the power to themselves,” Testa said.

The Rev. Kenneth I. Lewis led some support for Jennings’ proposal on the subcommittee, seeing it as “a compromise” that would accelerate the review process.

Several community members opposed the proposal. Joey Brunelle, a two-time city council candidate, said that handpicking a civilian member without public input felt like “the illusion of representation” and raised several questions.

“What is the process that the city manager will use to select someone for the use-of-force committee? Does the police department have veto power over who may serve on that committee? How does a citizen apply to serve on this committee, or is this merely done through Jon Jennings’ Rolodex?” Brunelle asked.

The Portland Police Department has distinct use-of-force review processes for complaints. Only external complaints are reviewed by the PCRS, while complaints that arise within the department are subject to an internal task force, according to Police Chief Frank Clark.

Local and state police departments have said that they want to end racism in policing, but have opposed efforts to track its treatment of people of color, who are arrested and subjected to use of force at disproportionately higher rates than the population.

Months ago, an internal complaint of the department was accidentally shared with the subcommittee, Testa said. The complaint’s status was changed to “external” after it was shared, she said.

That incident, which was reviewed in October, raised “all kinds of red flags” for Testa that internal complaints in the police department were not held to the same standards as external complaints.

“That ended up being the one complaint in the history of this committee — as far as any of us know — in which this body voted ‘no’ — the investigation had not been properly done overall,” Testa said.