Current and former chiefs of police from nine communities in greater Portland gathered Wednesday to condemn the killing of George Floyd, and said they “can and must do better” and vowed to listen to demonstrators’ concerns around race and policing.

But the chiefs offered no concrete policy changes they plan to enact to address systemic racism, instead urging communication and openness with members of the public who feel aggrieved or harmed by police practices. Some said they would evaluate their policies to ensure they are following best practices, but none offered specific changes that may be on the table. Portland’s police department, meanwhile, has so far not released its written use-of-force policy despite multiple requests by the Portland Press Herald since Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25. A spokeswoman for the city expects to release a copy Thursday.

During a speech Wednesday morning, Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts offered her own twist on a controversial phrase, saying “every life matters,” which has become a dismissive response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Her comment generated swift backlash, and by 5:30 p.m., she once again stood in front of Portland City Hall, but this time to apologize before more than 1,000 demonstrators.

“I want to apologize to all of our black and brown community members, not just here but nationally,” Roberts said during the anti-racism rally. “I agree, I need to educate myself.”

Floyd’s death while in police custody was captured on a harrowing video that has sparked protests in hundreds of cities in every state, and in metropolitan centers across the world.

For nearly nine minutes, Floyd begged for relief as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. Chauvin and the three other former officers who participated in the arrest now face charges connected to the death. Floyd, 46, matched the description of a man who was believed to have passed a counterfeit bill at a convenience store. Video shows the officers pinned Floyd to the ground face down as he stopped breathing and died.

“We must all learn from this, and from all tragic events, so they are never repeated,” Yarmouth Police Chief Dan Gallant said. “We, too, are outraged. There is no place for racism and police brutality in Maine or in our country. Maine law enforcement can and must do better.”

Roberts said she recognizes that her department has not effectively engaged with people of color who live in Westbrook. She urged anyone who feels oppressed by police to call the police to set up meetings and to become part of the conversation about changing systemic problems.

“Anybody who feels that they are oppressed by their law enforcement agencies, their public servants who wear the uniforms, or police officers or corrections or district attorneys office, anything in the criminal justice system, I ask you to partner with us in bringing those things forward,” Roberts said. “I can’t change something if I don’t know about it.”

She continued: “We cannot do this by ourselves. We need your help. We need your patience, and sometimes, yes, we need your forgiveness. Not because there was a character flaw and somebody intentionally committed an act that violated somebody’s rights. It’s because we’re human and we don’t always make the right decision.”

Roberts said it was “eye-opening” to hear during a virtual meeting with protest organizers on Tuesday that some young people of color wake up every day afraid that the police could arrest, maim or kill them. It was a statement she was still processing and attempting to absorb and apply to her personal and professional life, she said.

Hamdia Ahmed, an organizer of the large protest at City Hall Wednesday afternoon, spoke before the protest crowd later in the evening and rejected the phrase “all lives matter,” but did not refer to Roberts or the other chiefs.

“Well, if all lives mattered, I wouldn’t be here right now. If all lives mattered, black people wouldn’t be murdered because of the color of their skin. … All lives will not matter until black lives matter,” she said.

Ahmed also posted a message on Facebook Wednesday saying she disagreed with the way city officials described the virtual meeting with protest organizers and a wide-ranging group of officials that took place Tuesday.

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark speaks at Wednesday’s press conference at City Hall. When asked if he would release the use-of-force policy that governs officers’ conduct, he deferred to the department’s attorney. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Ahmed said she told police that they “should not use excessive force” such as pepper spraying protesters. “Instead, they should listen to the voices of black youths and try to educate themselves. … They made it seem like we had a good conversation with hugs and kisses.”

During the chiefs’ news conference, Portland Police Chief Frank Clark and Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce both lauded officers’ conduct during clashes with protesters in Portland. Joyce said officers exercised “great restraint” when demonstrations turned from peaceful to destructive and violent. Clark said he was proud of the men and women who performed their jobs under difficult circumstances.

Police wearing riot gear used handheld pepper spray and air-powered guns that fire projectiles filled with a pepper-based irritant that burst on impact. A total of 33 people have been arrested over two nights of demonstrations. All but one face a charge of failure to disperse.

Joyce said he saw a pattern during the demonstrations, where organizers conclude their planned demonstrations and call it a night, but a group looking to cause trouble remains in the streets to antagonize police. Clark suggested that some of the agitators were from outside Maine.

“Call your local law enforcement agency, set up a meeting. We’re willing to listen,” said Joyce, whose deputies joined officers from more than a dozen communities to help respond to the unrest. “We can’t be yelling over each other. In the last part of the last two nights, no one was being heard. We’re just trying to defend this great city, and the people who work for us. And that’s all we’ve been left to do.”

Clark deferred to the department’s attorney when asked if he would release the use-of-force policy that governs those officers’ conduct. Later in the day, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the city was working on the request and expected to release the policy Thursday.

When asked if the chiefs would promise to proactively release decisions of discipline made internally against their officers who violate policies, none who stood before City Hall stepped to the podium. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck said it was inappropriate to ask chiefs to make a commitment to act on the spot when there are many factors that govern the disciplinary process, including provisions in union contracts that most departments have with their rank-and-file.

Under state statute, decisions of final discipline are public records, but few departments proactively publish the information.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask a dozen people to vow to do one thing or another today, as we stand here in the foyer of City Hall,” Sauschuck said. “I do think what you hear is that law enforcement leaders in this state are open to having any and all conversations. Where that’s going to end, I don’t know. Nobody here knows.”

In contrast to Maine departments, Minneapolis police maintain a public database of complaints against police and disciplinary measures meted out through internal affairs investigations. It’s part of the reason national news organizations were quickly able to learn about the past complaints against the four officers involved in the fatal arrest of Floyd, including Chauvin, the former officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes as he begged for his mother and told police he was dying.

Sauschuck said he was unaware of how Minneapolis or other cities handle complaints.

When asked if he believes there are elements of systemic racism in the Maine criminal justice system, Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said racism permeates across the country.

“I don’t think Maine’s exempt from that,” Sahrbeck said. “I think it’s very important to say black lives matter.”

But Sahrbeck’s office does not collect data on the race of the people it prosecutes, making it nearly impossible to regularly evaluate whether black and brown people have similar justice outcomes as their white peers.

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