Black people in Portland have a greater chance than whites of being arrested, cited and subjected to use of force by police, even as crime has fallen statewide and fewer people are being arrested in the city overall, according to new data released by the city’s police department Friday.

Although black people made up 7 to 8 percent of the city’s population from 2016 through 2019, they represented nearly 17 percent of arrests last year. Earlier years showed even greater disparities. In 2018, black people accounted for 17.5 percent of the arrests. In 2017, it was 23 percent, and in 2016, 21 percent of the arrests were of black people.

In comparison, white people made up 84 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2019 Census, and accounted for 81 percent of the arrests in 2018 and 2019, 79 percent in 2017, 76 percent in 2016 and 78 percent in 2015. Citations were similar, ranging from 80-84 percent during the same period, according to the city’s statistics, which categorize people as black, white, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian/Pacific Islander or unknown.

The trend mirrors national statistics, which show that black people everywhere in the United States are at a greater risk of being arrested than white people. In 2018, black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all the people arrested in the U.S., but represented only about 13 percent of the population, according to FBI crime data.

Black people in Portland also receive citations at a higher rate than their population would suggest. For each of the last five calendar years, black people represented between 10.6 percent and 12.2 percent of all citations issued.

Incidents involving the use of force by police officers, while a tiny fraction of the more than 80,000 calls for service the department responded to each year, also showed a racial disparity.

Between 2016 and 2019, the department recorded 65-90 use-of-force cases each year. Black people represented between 16.6 percent and 26.1 percent of those incidents, according to the data. The highest year for use of force against black people was in 2017, when 17 of the city’s 65 use-of-force cases involved black people. 

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark did not respond to requests for an interview about the data and whether he believes the racial disparities should lead to reforms of policies or procedures.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said the figures reflect a system of racism in America.

Ross said blacks fare worse than whites in wealth and incomes, academics, food insecurity and a host of other societal measures. A higher rate of arrests is just another in a long list of statistics that illustrate inequality, she said.

“This is genocide,” she said. “If we don’t change the way we do things, the system will just continue to support the disparities.”

Ross also said the numbers have been consistent for years.

“This is what we have been trying to tell the city of Portland for decades,” she said. “It shows exactly what life as an indigenous person or African American looks like in Maine.”

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, agreed, saying the numbers reflect over-policing of communities of color in the city.

“Maine is not immune to the problems we see in the country,” Beyea said. “Maine is not immune to this sort of systemic racism.”

Beyea said there are racial disparities throughout Maine society, from education to health care and housing. And how the police operate is another area that needs to be faced, she said.

“The city of Portland should absolutely be concerned when there are any numbers like this,” she said.

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he and the other councilors need to study the data and possibly address the disparities on June 22, when the council holds a workshop on calls for an investigation of the police response to a demonstration on June 1 that resulted in over 20 arrests and the use of pepper spray on demonstrators.

“We need to make sure (law) enforcement is fair,” Thibodeau said. “We as a city council have an obligation to go through (the statistics).”

Thibodeau, however, did say that he doesn’t remember the issue of racial disparities in Portland policing being raised before the national unrest over police killing of blacks this spring.

The city compiled the statistics, in part, because of a request by the Portland Press Herald filed June 4. Since then, city councilors also have asked for more race-based policing data amid a series of protests in Portland and nationwide against systemic racism and police brutality.

It’s unclear whether the city regularly analyzes factors of race when it crunches arrest and enforcement data for internal use, or if the statistics were prepared only because media, community members and members of the city council have begun inquiring.

“Sorry for the delay,” Portland Communications Director Jessica Grondin wrote in a message that accompanied the statistics Friday. “But this was quick work from a 20-plus-year-old system.”

Grondin’s comment reflects the outdated and cumbersome software that many departments utilize. Even the state’s assessment of its police systems is out of date. The last survey of the roughly 162 police department data systems was performed in 2012, and found 13 different data systems in use at that time.

The last time the city crunched the arrest numbers and made them public was annual figures for 2013. That data was prepared following the nationwide response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Then-police Chief Michael Sauschuck presented the numbers during a community discussion at Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, revealing a de-facto racial disparity in arrest rates that persists to this day.

The Press Herald submitted questions in writing to Chief Clark before the figures were released about the data compilation process and whether the department regularly uses race-based data as a tool to measure policing. Clark has not responded to those inquiries, so it’s unclear if the department uses race-based statistics regularly, or only compiles them when asked by outside entities.

All police departments in Maine and across the country tabulate the same crime and arrest statistics because the federal government requires them to do so. The underlying data forms the basis for the national crime rate, which is analyzed each year by the FBI. But race is omitted from this count in the report published by the Maine Department of Public Safety; arrest breakdowns exist only for age and gender at the statewide level.

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