Councilor Justin Costa, during a virtual workshop Monday, weighs in on Mayor Kate Snyder’s proposal to create a steering committee to help draft a community vision for how the city should tackle systemic racism.

PORTLAND — Portland Mayor Kate Snyder proposed Monday that a steering committee develop a vision for improving racial equity in the city, but one city councilor feels the city’s highest priority should be an investigation of the police response to a June 1 Black Lives Matter protest.

Snyder’s proposal comes as the City Council is being pressured by the Black Lives Matter movement to address systemic racism, including police reform.

Forming a steering committee would be an important first step in charting “a path toward a community vision to fight systemic racism,” she said at a virtual workshop with councilors Monday.

Councilor Kimberly Cook said creating racial equity in the city, while necessary, “is broader than police and public safety,” and a look specifically into the police department needs to be the first focus for the group.

“I do feel a sense of urgency on that. Because of the public outcry for it, it deserves priority right now,” she said.

Cook and Councilor Pious Ali have previously called for a third-party investigation of the Portland Police Department’s response to the June 1 Black Lives Matter protest in which police used pepper spray on some demonstrators when the protest escalated. They reiterated the need for an outside perspective last week, after Police Chief Frank Clark outlined the department’s response, and said it was unprepared for the vandalism and protesters’ attacks on officers.

Ali said the goal of an outside review is not to prove police did or did not do something wrong that night, but rather to offer transparency about what happened and allow those at the protest an opportunity to have their side heard. He said he intends to bring that request to the council for action July 13.

Councilor Belinda Ray said a steering committee is a good vehicle to look at the potential restructuring of public safety, but she hopes such a conversation doesn’t come across as an attack on the police department.

“I do believe, if we want to look at, as I do, potential structuring of how we offer public safety, it probably makes sense to do so with a steering committee,” she said.

Along with police reform, Councilor Tae Chong said he would like the group to look at the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases. According to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control, Black people make up close to a 25% of the cases in the state, but make up less than 1.5 % of the state’s population.

“We need to have meaningful discussion on that because those two things are front and center,” he said.

The council is expected to vote on the creation of the steering committee July 13. Snyder in early August would appoint members, who could include representatives in the areas of housing, health care, education and homeless services.

The committee, supported by an independent facilitator, would be charged with coming up with a vision as to how city departments can address racism and report back to the council in March 2021.

Chong said he hopes the committee is a diverse group of all ages.

“The makeup needs to be diverse and your people need to be represented because their tolerance level is a lot different than it is for me and my generation,” he said.

Councilor Justin Costa said the group’s representation “should come from the communities we are most concerned about.”

“This is going to be an long-term effort. The issue we are talking about, systemic racism and institutional racism is not something that can be solved by passing something” at the council level, he said.

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