A protester kneels before officers in riot gear in front of the Portland police station on June 2. While law enforcement leaders are speaking out against systemic racism and police violence, Maine falls short of some other states in its ability to collect and analyze race-based information about its policing practices. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The death of George Floyd and the massive public outcry against systemic racism and police violence have spurred law enforcement leaders across the state to speak out against racist practices and injustice.

But measuring how fairly Maine’s criminal justice system works for non-white residents often means flying blind, and in the past, some law enforcement leaders have opposed collecting more data about race and policing.

Most Maine law enforcement agencies keep only basic statistics about the race of the people they arrest, and there is no regular evaluation of how race plays a role in policing and justice outcomes at a statewide level. Maine’s ability to collect and analyze race-based information about its policing practices falls short of some other states, whose legislators have forged ahead with systems designed to collect better, more useful information that is regularly shared with the public.

Calls for more information gathering are coming from the judiciary and inside state government. A report by a pretrial justice reform task force last year recognized that there are significant gaps in data collection, and urged the state to fully fund and support data collection about arrests, bail conditions and amounts, bail violations, jail data, and pre-trial incarceration information.

Whether the Legislature will have a chance to address potential reforms remains to be seen. Although some committees will begin meeting next week, it’s unclear what chance they will have to consider new proposals and take action.

An assessment by the Council on State Governments Justice Center published in 2019 found that when controlling for population, black people in Maine are more frequently arrested than their white peers. Statewide in 2018, only 1 percent of the state’s population was black, but black people accounted for 5 percent of the arrests and 16 percent of Class A felonies, the highest level of offense next to murder.

The outside analysis was requested by the Mills administration, and top officials from all three branches of government signed on in support; the work was funded by grant money, enabling a deeper dive into state records that are often cumbersome to work with or that contain confidential information unavailable to the media or the public.

The study also reveals a more basic shortcoming: Maine police sometimes fail to collect race data at all. In 2018, nearly a quarter of arrest records evaluated had no race-based data attached, mostly for low-level misdemeanor offenses, the CSG study found.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, one of the few black House members, sponsored legislation last year that would have mandated the collection of detailed demographic data by police officers at all traffic stops in an effort to find and root out racial profiling. But the data-collection portion of that bill was removed after police groups said that collecting the information was too costly or too burdensome, or that racial profiling may be so rare that it did not warrant such expense and time.

Hickman said he is not surprised by the disproportional rates of arrest and prosecution of people of color, and believes the time for hand-wringing about process concerns is over.

“No more excuses about costs or burden or anything else,” he said this week. “Collect the data.”

He is also thinking bigger than just traffic stops, and said any discussion about correcting systemic racism must be grounded in the recognition that mistreatment of black, brown and indigenous people has been a hallmark of American systems of all varieties since before the nation’s founding.

Rep. Craig Hickman sponsored legislation last year to mandate collection of detailed demographic data by police officers at all traffic stops, in an effort to root out racial profiling. 2013 photo by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“This moment needs a comprehensive approach,” he said. “We’re going for the rhizome of racism.”

The study by the Council for State Governments may be the most expansive statewide review of justice outcomes to be performed in recent years, and went behind simplistic arrest figures, and looked at thousands of arrests and court cases, broken down by all manner of variables, including demographics, case outcome and sentence type.

When it came to drug offenses, the disparity was even greater, although research shows that black and white people possess and use drugs at close to the same rate. Yet black people represent about 8 percent of drug arrests – or eight times their proportion of the population in Maine. When researchers examined the racial impact among the three levels of felony drug offenses, they found that the more serious the charge, the greater the racial disparity. Black people accounted for 21 percent of Class A drug offenses, 15 percent of Class B drug offenses, and 4 percent of Class C drug offenses.

Black people also make up a disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population statewide. During 2018, more than 1 in 10 prison sentences – 12 percent in all – were for black defendants, and the proportion of black people sentenced increased with the offense level. Nearly a quarter – about 23 percent – of sentences for Class A felonies were given to black people.

That same year, about 9 percent of the people who were sentenced had legal addresses outside Maine, and about half of them were black.

New data released over the past week by police departments in Portland and South Portland in response to questions raised after Floyd’s death were more limited but also revealed clear racial disparities.

In Portland last year, black people represented 8.3 percent of the population but accounted for more than double that proportion of arrests. And in South Portland, black people represented 3.8 percent of the population and 16.1 percent of the adult arrests and summonses.

Police chiefs in both cities compiled the data to answer questions raised after Floyd’s death, and said they want to look deeper at the data.

Although some departments, such as Portland’s, have taken the initiative to upgrade their data systems, there is no statewide requirement to do so. But in at least three other states – California, Connecticut and Oregon – lawmakers have moved forward with police data collection mandates, which included new funding to update computer systems and pay for staff to crunch the information and look for patterns.

While Hickman’s racial profiling bill was eventually enacted without data collection, it did require the Office of the Attorney General to evaluate what options the Legislature has for moving forward. Their report, submitted to the judiciary committee in March, suggests that lawmakers might look to California and Connecticut as examples of how to implement more detailed data collection.

In Connecticut, implementing the data collection system cost about $750,000, according to the review by the Maine Attorney General. Rhode Island has also consistently funded racial-profiling studies, and reports the outcome publicly. The Oregon law, passed in 2015, cost the state about $2.3 million and took three years to implement.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office gave two other options for collecting more information about racial profiling. The Legislature could formalize a little-known responsibility of the AG’s office to handle complaints of racial profiling, as a way to see if more data collection is warranted. The state’s criminal justice academy also could intervene, and use power granted to it by statute to require departments collect information on racial profiling complaints.

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