SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents of South Portland recently had the chance to ask the police department specific questions and raise concerns about how policing is done in the community.

In response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer and inaction of nearby officers, South Portland felt it important to engage in a dialogue with residents about policing and racism in the city, said the South Portland’s Facebook page.

City Manager Scott Morelli and Timothy Sheehan, chief of police, who has been in South Portland since January, hosted the forum on June 4, inviting residents to ask questions about racism and policing in the community.

Rep. Victoria Morales, one of the speakers, said that the city needed to look at the system as a whole.

“I think we all recognize the criminal justice system causes harm to family lives,” she said. “Despite the fact we’re a state with 94 percent white people we have a duty to the people of color in our community. It’s the community trauma that still exists, how it impacts young people when they see more police in their communities than others, how it impacts young people in their schools, when they see police in their schools.”

She said she would like to see more of a crisis intervention focus.

With respect to the upcoming hiring in the police department, Pedro Vazquez, who is on the Civil Service Commission, said that there are 13 candidates, and he’s done a background check on them.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see any people of color in that roster,” he said. “I’m wondering why we’re not able to attract any members of those communities.That’s important. Representation matters and we need to reflect the community we live in.”

Sheehan replied that when he arrived to South Portland in January, the department was in a position where it  had two applicants and the department had to be creative in drawing in more candidates.

“We’re still looking and we’re not closing the door on anybody,” he said. “This was just the first set of interviews. Those were the first 13 people who completed the process … We are really working hard to try to represent the population we serve.”

Baba Ly, a South Portland resident and business owner, said that he is a black man who has experienced racism, like being followed in grocery stores, which he found humiliating, and racism in the workplace.

“A lot of you, as white people, you will never experience that,” he said.

As a father, Ly fears future interactions with his children and the South Portland Police Department, he said.

“Now they are cute because they are 9, 7 and 4, and once they become teens and develop a natural rebellious attitude because of their age, they may be discriminated against because of their skin color,” he said.

He said that Sheehan and Morelli were doing a good deed through hosting the public forum, and Ly wants to see the city continuing to support and listen to black residents.

“I hope this is really a true and genuine initiative to engage in a dialogue with the black community,” he said. “Just because of their skin color, they are put into the bottom of society. (I’m) hoping this isn’t going to be a one-time thing, because the country is burning.”

Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle that South Portland acquired about five years ago can be quite frightening for residents to see, said resident Becky Lomangino, who wanted to know if it had ever been used, saying that she did not want the city to become militarized.

“I do not like that vehicle,” she said. “I don’t think it represents our city. I don’t think it represents our police department.”

While Sheehan hasn’t been in South Portland for long, he said that there have been a couple of SWAT calls, where the vehicle has served as a barrier, he said, but the department is understanding of how intimidating it can be.

“That vehicle, obviously, I was not here when it was acquired,” he said. “It was an option exercised because there wasn’t the funding necessary to afford a more appropriate rescue vehicle that doesn’t look as militaristic as that. We work hard towards having it only visualized when there is gun fire that it will protect against or anything else going on. We definitely don’t want a militaristic city here.”

Sheehan also told Lomangino that the police department is looking to making all policies available online, on its website.

Margaret Brownlee, director of career services at Southern Maine Community College, wanted to know if the city and police had plans to directly communicate with people of color in future dialogues and workshops.

“I really want there to be change in this country,” she said. “I am hopeful that change is going to come and that now is the time.”

The most powerful things for Sheehan was when he sat down with NAACP representatives where one said that every time a police officer passes by, black citizens are in fear.

“I do not know that feeling,” he said. “Just the fears of having a child that’s going to drive and they could be pulled over. I can just tell you that I’m sickened and I recognize what has happened not only in this profession, but in this country. I am ready to roll up my sleeves. Help me with the direction. I would love to have forums. I would love to work on ways we can do better. I can promise you there is evidence of every police action in South Portland.”

Morelli told the public that the city is definitely open to holding more forums and continuing the conversation.

In addition to the support of increased and ongoing communication, the South Portland City Council passed a resolution on June 2 that says the city will “maintain constant vigilance” and do everything in its power to keep South Portland as a welcoming community. The council also resolved to keeping communities engaged and address institutionalized racism.

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