SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council plans to take money from the police department to create a human rights commission that would root out racism and other inequities in city departments.

Developed with support from the police chief and city manager, the proposal is the first known instance in Maine of reallocating law enforcement funding in the wake of recent police killings of black people and worldwide protests against systemic racism.

City officials have already started a to-do list for the commission, releasing statistics that show significant racial disparities in arrests and criminal summonses of black adults and youths by the South Portland Police Department in 2019.

The council is expected to hold a workshop this summer on forming the commission at the request of Councilor Deqa Dhalac, who is an African American from Somalia, and at the urging of community members concerned about the issue.

Student protesters are joined by police June 4 at the South Portland police station in a demonstration against institutional racism. This week, city officials announced the pending creation of a human rights commission to root out racism and other inequities in city departments. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“My idea is not to work against police,” Dhalac said Wednesday. “I want the police to be involved. I want this to be a community-building commission.”

City officials announced the pending creation of the commission during a seven-hour Zoom council meeting Tuesday night that ran into Wednesday morning.

The council reviewed several police budget items totaling $591,171, including money for handguns, Tasers, training and overtime pay.

They were gleaned from a proposed $5.2 million police department budget for fiscal 2021 that’s 6.1 percent higher than the $4.9 million spending plan for 2020. The council is reviewing an overall $113 million municipal budget for 2021 that’s $4.7 million, or 4.4 percent, higher than the current budget, which ends June 30.

Mayor Kate Lewis said a majority of councilors have indicated they want the bulk of the police budget to be funded as proposed. As much as $25,000 from police overtime budgets would be set aside as seed money for a human rights commission.

An additional $52,000 from the police budget would be reallocated to help build a $450,000 skate park. The council is scheduled to take final budget votes Tuesday.

While some councilors wanted to scrutinize the police budget further, Lewis said most councilors want a more comprehensive review of racial issues across city departments with guidance from the commission.

“We want to address systemic racism in the city,” Lewis said. “We can’t solve that in a week by making cuts to the police department. We have to rely on good data and a group of people who can study the issue for us.”

The council’s focus on police spending, policies and practices follows global protests and widespread calls for criminal justice reform, including in neighboring Portland, in the wake of George Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis. A white police officer held his knee on the black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been fired, charged with second-degree murder and is being held on $1.25 million bail. Three other officers involved with the incident also were fired and face felony charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

In addition to scrutinizing police spending and forming a human rights commission, the council is expected to hold a workshop, requested by Councilor Misha Pride, on police policies related to the use of force.

The council received a report Tuesday night that says six claims of excessive force have been filed against city officers and reviewed by the department since 2015, including one filed by a black man. One of the six complaints, made by a white man, was substantiated.

The report from City Manager Scott Morelli and Police Chief Tim Sheehan also shows that while black people make up 3.8 percent of South Portland’s 25,500 residents, they accounted for 16.1 percent of adult arrests and summonses by city police in 2019.

“We are no different than any other city,” Dhalac said. “Police are profiling people of color more than others.”

In 2018, black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all people arrested in the United States, but represented only about 13 percent of the population, according to FBI crime data.

The South Portland report also says that while black youths make up 12.3 percent of students in the city’s public schools, they accounted for 25 percent of juvenile arrests and criminal summonses in 2019.

“(The) city is committed to working with the Human Rights Commission to help better understand the discrepancy between the population statistics and number of (arrests and) summonses/citations based on race,” the report states.

The report also notes that one allegation of racial discrimination, brought in 2010 by a white non-English-speaking person, was dismissed by the Maine Human Rights Commission; one claim of harassment, filed in 2018 by a black man, was dropped; and no claims of racial bias have been filed against city police in the last five years.

Mayor Lewis said potential bias in citywide hiring practices also is a concern.

Despite the city’s stated efforts to increase minority hiring, only one of 59 full-time police department employees identified as nonwhite. That’s roughly 1 percent. Only 10 of 322 municipal employees – about 3 percent – identified as nonwhite, said Stephanie Weaver, human resources director.

“It’s clearly a priority for the hiring managers and a goal of the City Council,” Lewis said. “I know we can do better.”

While Portland officials consider calls to remove resource officers from that city’s schools, that topic has yet to crop up in South Portland.

The police department provides one officer to South Portland High School and one officer to the middle and elementary schools. The school department covers 85 percent of the two officers’ salaries and benefits, which is about $168,000 in the 2021 school budget.

Dhalac believes armed resource officers should be removed from the city’s schools because they intimidate and instill fear in students, especially students of color.

Schools Superintendent Ken Kunin said the school board plans to hold a workshop in the fall on the resource officer program. Of the school department’s 600 employees, about 15 to 20 – 2.5 to 3.3 percent – have been people of color in recent years.

The council issued a unanimous resolution June 2 that expressed outrage at George Floyd’s death, condemned all forms of racism and police brutality, and reaffirmed its support and protection of all residents regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation or gender.

The police department issued a similar statement June 1, saying its members “share in the concern of those who are saddened, troubled and incensed by the actions and inaction of those members of the Minneapolis Police Department that resulted in the tragic death of George Floyd.”

Signed by Chief Sheehan and police union leaders, the statement points out that the department recently received national and state accreditation based on special training, policies and practices.

Highlighted activities include using cruiser and body cameras; hiring a full-time behavioral health liaison; and providing crisis intervention training for all officers. The latter includes de-escalation techniques and implicit bias education to avoid physical altercations and assist people afflicted with mental health and substance use issues.

“South Portland has not suffered through the painful experiences of Minneapolis and other places,” the department’s statement says, “but we can and will learn from them and strive to maintain our reputation and commitment to excellence.”

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