Thursday, December 12, 2013
PORTLAND – In Cameroon, it's customary for someone who gets pulled over by police to get out, pull their wallet out of their sock and walk to the cruiser.
In America, coming at an officer while grabbing something out of your sock can get you killed.
Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, told the story at a Portland forum Friday to illustrate the importance of communication between law enforcement and the communities in which, and for which, they work.
McDevitt helped coordinate the daylong forum at the Portland Public Library, which was put on by the Bias-Based Profiling Advisory Committee.
The committee was established by the Legislature to explore the degree to which police enforcement actions are based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other demographic information rather than on behavior, and to develop mechanisms to prevent it.
Two and a half years ago, there was little agreement on the extent of the problem, or if there even was one.
"If there is a perception of bias-based law enforcement, then it's a problem and that interferes with law enforcement's goal of providing public safety," Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thom Harnett, the attorney general's designee on the committee, said during a question-and-answer session attended by about 60 people.
"We know there are members of certain communities that will not pick up the phone and call law enforcement when there is a need. Then we have a problem," he said.
The committee has made progress, however, said Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, who co-chairs the committee.
"We've come to a better, healthy understanding between the two groups. It's been a healthy process," he said.
Morris said Maine police departments now have a model policy prohibiting bias-based policing and there will be mandatory training on that and cultural diversity for all officers in the state in 2013.
Residents noted that getting pulled over can be extremely frightening, and that officers need to understand that a motorist's reaction may stem from that stress.
Advocates pointed out the need for police to use interpreters whenever interacting with people who don't speak English well, and that relying on a person's family members or friends is not good enough because they may not translate honestly.
But interpreters cost money and there are few resources available for such expenses.
NAACP director Rachel Talbot Ross said one of her frustrations has been that the Legislature refused to approve a law covering bias-based policing without data to show that it is a problem.
But she found there was no statewide data on the topic and no funding to develop such a system.
Westbrook, Lewiston-Auburn and Portland have agreed try to come up with a way to collect demographic data, she said.
But the effort still lacks funding.
An underlying theme of the event, which doesn't necessarily cost money, is increasing the number of positive interactions between police and people in minority communities.
McDevitt said the committee has been impressive in its ability to stay together and be productive, but "it really is more about doing it over time."
Talbot Ross concurred.
"Law enforcement and the (minority) community only come together in crisis, when its a negative interaction," she said.
The groups need to develop ways of promoting positive interaction on an ongoing basis, she said.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: