WESTBROOK— Police are working with school and city officials to hold community forums to discuss policies in response to recent Black Lives Matter protests and their demands for better treatment by law enforcement.

Police Chief Janine Roberts said she is proud of her department and their community engagement. The department has had one complaint of racial profiling since 2015, which was later withdrawn.

“I acknowledge there is room for improvement, as to what that is, we will figure that out and work together,” Roberts said. “But it’s more than a one-way street. There are things as individuals and as groups we can do.”

Police representatives attended a virtual meeting with school and city officials and residents June 16, where they talked about the department’s use of force policy and police training relating to racism and bias and listened to people’s stories about dealing with police and racism.

That was a start, Roberts said, but those meetings need to reach more people.

“We are glad to check our own house and work with the community to find a balance,” Roberts said. “I’m anticipating that these conversations continue. The reality, though, is that out of 30 plus people, only seven people of color or so participated. How do we engage more, especially with young men of color who feel, based on what’s expressed to me, the most unsafe (around police)?

“We need to listen and share information. Information is power,” she said. 

Westbrook schools, in collaboration with the police, are working to host community conversations and get more people involved, said Superintendent Peter Lancia.

“I’ve been attending meetings with other community leaders around greater Portland, trying to create and communicate the essential message of support for our students of color in our schools and beyond,” Lancia said.

He agrees that a community-wide approach that includes the schools is needed to address systemic racism and anticipates potential changes in school policy after school officials study their own data.

Black Lives Matter protests have prompted Westbrook schools to put together data they lack, including racial demographics for discipline, class levels and student placement, he said.

“Those are the things we need to work on and do. We haven’t done a good job and we need to get up to speed,” Lancia said.As we look at systemic change we will have some areas of priority to first understand then begin to develop ways to address those at all levels.”

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee also plans to review police policies with more care, bringing police policies to the forefront for discussion at a public meeting, with Roberts present to answer any questions, but a date for that meeting has not been set.

Out of about 1,000 adults arrested in 2019 in Westbrook, 115, or 11%, were Black, and 878, or 87%, were white (87%), according to data compiled for the American Journal by Capt. Sean Lally. The percentages were similar for 2018 and 2017.

According to the most recent census data, in 2010, the racial makeup of the city is 92.3% white, 2.3% African American, 0.2% Native American, 1.9% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 0.6% from other races, and 2.5% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.9% of the population.

Arrests in Westbrook of Black people are disproportionate to the Black population, but Lally cautions: “there has to be a margin of error factored into the census data.” 

“People move around a lot. Westbrook has many major roads that go through it. Some crime originates in other jurisdictions and we make arrests based on mutual aid,” Lally said. “Also, the census factors in people who reside here. It doesn’t account for the day to day numbers of people who work, shop, travel through Westbrook. So, these numbers give us a baseline. They don’t tell the entire story.”

Lally said about 1% of the department’s calls result in officers using force, and use of force is not always used on crime suspects but in response to health crises like suicide threats, that lead to no arrest. Force can range from tackling and restraints to use of dogs, guns and non-lethal weapons like tasers.

Force also includes instances without any contact, like the threat of taser use, Lally said.

Since 2015, he said, there has been one complaint against a Westbrook officer for racial profiling, later dismissed.

“The complaint was from a Black male pedestrian who was stopped and questioned for walking near the roadway (breakdown lane) on Main Street in the early morning hours. He felt that he was profiled. There are sidewalks on both sides of the street and the citizen chose to walk in the roadway,” Lally said.

The department keeps statistics on the demographics of the people officers deal with in self-initiated contacts, such as traffic stops and pedestrian checks.

The activity of the accused officer “showed his contacts were in commensurate with the city demographics at the time, roughly 92% white and 8% minorities,” Lally said.

“Being able to produce these stats helped assure the complainant that the officer had no pattern of racial profiling behaviors and that he was stopped in the interest of public safety,” he said.

Roberts said her officers undergo a strict multi-layered hiring processes that looks at past misconduct and their attitudes on various subjects. Included in their screenings are questions designed to specifically identify racism. They also undergo regular training that deals with implicit bias.

More training focused on implicit bias had been set for early June but was postponed because of  COVID-19. It will be rescheduled for the fall.

“I do not believe our department has an issue with racism. I have excellent people in our uniform with the badge, doing their best with their own conditions to serve the public. As far as implicit bias, every human being has them, but I have not seen indication that our officers’ bias’ are displaying an unfair or inequitable trend or approach to serving the public,” Roberts said.

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