WESTBROOK – It’s not every day that the Maine Civil Liberties Union and law enforcement co-author a commentary piece.
We do, however, share a common commitment to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We also share the belief that no one should be discriminated against based on their race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.
That’s why we agree that racial profiling — the practice of stopping, searching or questioning a person solely because of their race — is wrong and should be illegal.
Bias-based profiling happens around the United States. People on all sides of this issue agree that evidence exists to support that conclusion. Even here in Maine, people of color report being stopped or questioned while walking or driving and are sometimes left feeling humiliated, afraid or anxious.
Stopping an individual just because they have black or brown skin does not help law enforcement prevent or solve crime.
Worse yet, it diverts scarce resources away from good law enforcement practices that keep us all safe. When racial profiling happens, fear of law enforcement in communities of color increases. As a result of increased fear or diminished trust, victims and witnesses of color are less likely to come forward.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., Mainers — including Indian tribal members, African-Americans, African refugees, Latino immigrants, and more — will share their experiences with profiling at the “Racial Profiling: Face the Truth” field hearing at the Portland Public Library.
We — civil rights advocates and law enforcement alike — want to better understand the experiences and perceptions of our diverse Maine communities.
The perceived baseless interrogation of a Sudanese father walking home from work at night in Portland negatively impacts that person and can adversely affect all of us.
Similarly, an unwarranted intrusion into the life of a Salvadoran mother of two as she walked out of Hannaford’s with her children made her feel less safe and less free.
When law enforcement was called to a bar in Washington County to break up a fight and went directly to the one native woman in the room, this apparent raced-based distraction allowed the real suspects to flee. These individuals’ lives have been affected by perceived racial or religious profiling.
Some law enforcement leaders believe that complaints of bias-based profiling often stem from poor communication; a failure of understanding between law enforcement and communities of color that can be fixed through mutual education and dialogue.
Transparency and openness on the part of the police, communities of color and advocates can transform negative encounters into positive ones, or significantly reduce the fear of bias-based profiling. Saturday’s hearing is an important step toward building trust.
Enforcing any ordinance in a local community to reduce robberies, car burglaries and criminal mischief should be a color blind exercise in sound public policy. The implementation of that policy may affect people differently. A rational explanation of the stop and careful implementation of such policies might change the way a person of color perceives their interaction with the police.
In order for law enforcement to function in a free society and to be effective, encounters between the police and communities of color will occur. Why they occur, how they occur, and whether they are free of bias-based motivation are legitimate questions.
Many leaders in Maine are already taking steps to evaluate the prevalence of bias-based policing and eliminate it.
Our state Legislature has committed to studying bias-based profiling through a task force made up of advocates, like the NAACP and MCLU, and leaders from law enforcement.
Some chiefs of police in Maine, with the help of national experts, are voluntarily tracking traffic stops in Maine to see if racial or religious profiling are challenges for their departments. Some police officers patrolling our streets now participate in Know Your Rights workshops in communities of color to show support and build relationships with communities. All of these are positive, proactive measures that make communities safer.
At the same time, our laws must be brought in line with what we know is best practice. Congress should act to pass the End Racial Profiling Act.
The stories shared on Saturday will be forwarded to the congressional delegation as will reports of the collaborative work civil rights advocates and law enforcement are doing right here in Maine.
Together, we can increase both public safety and individual freedom for everyone in our community.