Mayor Kate Snyder, center, stands in front of Portland City Hall on June 3 alongside city councilors at a protest against police brutality and in solidarity with Black Americans. Councilors voted Monday night to form Snyder’s proposed Racial Equity Steering Committee, but with a narrower scope.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland city councilors voted late Monday night to form a steering committee to address systemic racism in public safety and to request an independent review of the police response to recent protests.

The votes came after more than four hours of debate, wordsmithing and discussions about possible postponement.

Mayor Kate Snyder proposed creating a Racial Equity Steering Committee to draft a mission statement “regarding institutional racism and structural inequities” and to make recommendations to address and respond to systems, policies and procedures” that perpetuate it. But the proposal was criticized by eight members of the public, and councilors were split about the scope of work for the committee.

After a lengthy debate and three amendments, the council approved narrowing the scope of the committee’s work to focus on police policies – at least initially. The committee of nine to 13 members would be appointed in the coming weeks, Snyder said, and would report back to the council in January.

“I do care deeply about engaging the community in this work. We’re not going to get everything perfect,” said Snyder, who urged councilors to postpone the vote on the committee. “We are all in agreement that getting the best group around the table is so so critical.”

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones was the only councilor to vote against the steering committee, because he didn’t want the effort to focus solely on police.

“I was looking for something that was more community focused in terms of a variety of different directions but this is limited,” Mavodones said. 

City Councilors Pious Ali and Kim Cook succeeded in requesting an independent review into the police response to protests in early June, but councilors debated that issue late into the night. However, it will be up to City Manager Jon Jennings to order the review, since it deals with city operations, according to the city attorney.

Just before midnight, the council also voted 6-3 to postpone taking action on a proposed ban of facial recognition technology by city officials until August. The technology seeks to match a digital photo against existing databases, such as driver’s licenses, passport photos or mug shots.

Police say the technology is an additional tool to solve crimes and that they don’t make arrests on facial recognition matches alone. Civil liberties advocates, however, note that the technology misidentifies people of color, especially women, and represents an overall threat to people’s constitutional rights.

Ali proposed the ban in November, but the council has repeatedly delayed voting on the proposal. Ali, Cook and Belinda Ray voted against the postponement.

The proposal for a steering committee grew out of nationwide and local protests over the murder of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died on May 25 after a white police office pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Portland and throughout the country to protest police brutality and systemic racism, which produces poorer outcomes for Black people in areas like health, education, housing, criminal justice and more.

Protests on June 1 and 2 in Portland were largely peaceful, but became confrontational later in the night. Police, including officers from Portland, Maine State Police, country sheriffs and surrounding police departments, emerged in riot gear and fired pepper spray after protesters threw bottles at them.

Councilors clearly struggled to find the appropriate response to the protests. They wanted to ensure that protesters’ concerns and demands were taken seriously, without doing anything that could be perceived as an indictment against the city’s police force.

Councilors spent several hours hours Monday discussing Snyder’s Racial Equity Steering Committee.

There was limited public comment on the proposal, but nearly everyone who spoke urged the council to reject the proposal.

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said he opposed the steering committee, because the national Black Lives Matter movement, as well as local organizers, already have developed a slate of policy recommendations to be considered by federal, state and local officials. Those including banning facial recognition systems that misidentify people of color, particularly women, at higher rates than whites. Other recommendation include freezing rent during the COVID-19 pandemic and adopting participatory budgeting, which gives residents more direct input into how local tax dollars are spent.

Kebede suggested much of the council’s work has already been done – all they needed to do is act.

“They’re difficult to do for political reasons,” Kebede said. 

Others were worried that the city would not conduct the necessary and aggressive outreach to ensure that Black people are in the driver’s seat of this discussion.

“It’s time for a change,” resident Marcella Makinen said. “It’s uncomfortable. It’s challenging. And it’s difficult. We need to get accustomed to new leadership stepping up and speaking from experience.”

Councilors did tweak Snyder’s resolution. They approved City Council Spencer Thibodeau’s proposal to hire a neutral party to collect complaints about the police response to the June 1 and 2 protests. The idea stems from previous comments that some people of color in Portland are not comfortable reporting complaints to elected officials or police officers. That ombudsman would receive the complaints – and help interview people and file their complaints – and funnel them into the department’s normal complaint procedure.

Councilors also approved Ray’s amendment to limit the scope and length of time for the steering committee’s work. Instead of looking at systemic racism citywide, the group would initially look at public safety, since that appears to be the most pressing concern with BLM activists. Ray’s amendment would require he steering committee to report back in January 2021, rather than March 2021 so its recommendations can be considered in the budget.

Ray said the effort could help the police regain community trust, while also possibly leading to fewer responsibilities for police, including relying on them to respond to substance abuse calls and mental health calls among other things.

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