Legislators on two committees overseeing issues involving the courts and public safety will meet jointly next week to tackle controversial issues involving police tactics, racial bias and the use of deadly force, their first meetings since the legislative session was cut short by the pandemic.

The meeting Wednesday will involve legislators from the standing committees for the judiciary, and the committee for criminal justice and public safety. It will be the first time that Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck and Attorney General Aaron Frey face questions in public about the issues. It also may provide the first glimpse of what appetite lawmakers have for enacting reforms or structural changes that advocates are demanding in the midst of nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality.

The meeting comes as millions of people across the nation have risen up and marched in the streets, demanding a renegotiation of the social contract between government, police departments and the neighborhoods they are sworn to protect.

Driven by outrage at the steady stream of police killings of Black men in recent years, including the videotaped killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, activists in Maine and across the country are demanding police fundamentally change how they approach their job. Some are calling for departments to be abolished, disbanded or de-funded, with resources previously earmarked for police to be redistributed to social service departments, education and public housing.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who sits on the judiciary committee and is one of the few Black house members, is approaching the moment as a sea change, and hopes that members of the Legislature and state recognize it as such.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand that the commitment must be to doing our business differently, full stop,” Talbot Ross said Friday. “The public and the communities that have been most harmed need to see some steps being taken so that we haven’t just listened to them, but that we’ve heard them. And one of the ways we can do that is to look at these issues through an intersectional lens that centers on anti-Black racism, centers on patriarchy and centers on colonialism.”

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the committee on criminal justice and public safety, said she’s fielded an outpouring of inquiries from other legislators who want to support transformational change or have questions about how to become involved. Warren said the meeting Wednesday – and testimony from Sauschuck and Frey – will be an early indicator of how open they may be to shifting the terms and the scope of the conversation.

“I hope that we see the commissioner and the attorney general not come in with, ‘Oh no, we don’t have those problems here,’ or ‘Oh no, we’re doing everything great,’ or, ‘Let us give you the dog-and-pony powerpoint of all the great stuff we do,’ ” Warren said. “What I hope we come away with is, ‘OK, we all recognize that the system needs to be fixed, and we all want to figure out how to go forward and fix this.'”

Frey and Sauschuck will brief legislators about how the state trains police in the use of force, and how incidents involving the use of force are investigated. The Criminal Justice Academy through its board of trustees, has the power to set standards for all police in the state, including on use-of-force policies and annual, recurring trainings.

The agenda also includes a briefing on the Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center, which is at the center of a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by a state trooper who alleges civil rights abuses by officers assigned to the secretive police intelligence unit, which combines local, state and federal police.

The trooper, George Loder, alleges that he suffered professional retaliation after he spoke out about alleged civil rights abuses by officers at the center. Loder, in his lawsuit, alleges police kept a de-facto registry of legal gun owners, spied on peaceful protests, and in one case, gathered intelligence about a group opposing Central Maine Power’s Hydro-Quebec power corridor, and forwarded the information to CMP.

Legislators also will examine for the first time a report submitted in March by Frey’s office about tracking racial disparities in traffic stops, arrests and use of force. The state does not track such data despite evidence that Black people in Maine are much more likely to be arrested than white people.

New data released over the past week by police departments in Portland and South Portland revealed clear racial disparities, mirroring other data collected in Maine and nationwide.

In Portland last year, Black people represented 8.3 percent of the population but 16.9 percent of the arrests. And in South Portland, Black people represented 3.8 percent of the population and 16.1 percent of the adult arrests and summonses.

Frey’s report gives legislators a menu of options on how the state could collect more information about traffic stops conducted statewide by police in an effort to identify and root out racial profiling tactics. The report was the result of legislation filed by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, whose original bill sought mandatory, statewide collection of various demographic data points about every driver pulled over by officers.

But police opposed the data collection, cast doubt whether there is a problem with racial profiling in the state and said that updating data systems would be too expensive. Other states, meanwhile, have forged ahead with collecting the information, and are now seeing the fruits of their efforts in the form of publicly available reports that describe trends in how police stop drivers.

Frey also will report to legislators about a new panel convened to review each incident of deadly force deployed by Maine police.

It is the first of its kind in New England, and will be charged with casting a critical eye toward the conduct of police. It is separate from the legal investigation and analysis that Frey’s office conducts to determine whether a shooting or killing by a police officer is legally justified. No officer in Maine has ever been found unjustified in the use of deadly force in modern history.

 

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