As communities around the country reform police departments to guard against excessive force and racial profiling, many are looking to create citizen oversight boards similar to one that has quietly existed in Portland for two decades.

But some members of that little-known committee in Maine’s largest city say it has failed to provide any real oversight for years.

“My view of the committee as an entity is that it should start all over,” said Maria Testa, who was appointed to the committee in 2018 and has become one of its most vocal members. “We need to re-create it from the ground up. It’s failing to be a body of oversight of law enforcement.”

While Portland’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee was set up in a way to avoid tangling with police unions, national attitudes around police accountability are shifting amid widespread protests following the death of George Floyd in May, committee members say. And the impending launch of a commission to update the city’s charter and a separate racial equity steering committee created by the City Council could provide opportunities for the city to create a new model with meaningful oversight, they say.

Committee members are working to come up with options for reform and get the public behind them, including doing the difficult work of community outreach during a global pandemic. The members say they hope to make a report to the city manager, the City Council or others by the end of the year.

“We hear from the city that the police department is a national leader in all of these ways,” Testa said. “Why can’t civilian oversight of law enforcement be part of that?”

Scores of other U.S. cities also are looking to citizen oversight panels as part of broader policing reforms. At the same time, however, the history of Portland’s oversight committee and the experience in other U.S. cities show that it’s an idea that faces significant political and legal challenges.

While Portland’s committee was originally formed in response to a high-profile excessive force case, its members don’t describe a police department with widespread problems or in need of dramatic reforms. Still, more transparency can improve public confidence, some said.

The committee has struggled for years with the limits of its power, public visibility and relevance, according to records from its earliest meetings. Now that people are paying more attention, subcommittee Chairwoman Emily West said she wants to proceed deliberately with ideas for reform. If the public could see into the confidential files they see, they may come away with more positive attitudes about policing in Portland, she said. But state laws prevent the disclosure of personnel records and investigations, other than final decisions of discipline.

“I’m not here to say the police need a ton of oversight and there’s tons of problems,” West said. “We haven’t really seen that. But there is something to be said for being proactive. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I hope it can be a collaborative process.”

Experts say any change in oversight will have to include the input of police officers, whose legal and employment rights cannot be overlooked. Communities that don’t work with police officers risk years of legal battles or a deeper divide between the community and police, a situation that’s playing out in Camden, New Jersey, said Brian Corr, who leads the Police Review and Advisory Board for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

“When you’re looking at creating oversight, what I always say is you need to bring all of the stakeholders to the table,” Corr said. “In the final analysis, we should all have the same goal. We want safe, just and peaceful communities. It’s really not about the strongest form of oversight; it has to do with what is most effective for your community.”

Still, the endeavor will likely require a huge effort of political willpower and extensive public involvement.

“I think the country post-George Floyd has been very much ‘we’re looking for what is wrong,’ rather than ‘what are the opportunities to move forward and make positive changes,'” said Paul Gaspar, president of the Maine Association of Police, an umbrella organization of 48 police labor unions in Maine representing about 850 members, including the Portland Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the union representing about 115 line officers.

“Right now, all of the changes taking place are based on political agendas,” Gaspar said. “Our biggest concern at the moment are what are the underlying issues that are driving the conversation? We’re in some pretty angry times. People are polarized one way or the other. But unfortunately, our folks are left to still hit the streets and do the job. Not once have we heard what Maine law enforcement is doing right and has been doing right for the past 20, 25 years.”

Although he said he is still open to a conversation about citizen oversight, he said any process needs to address officers’ concerns about consistency, fairness and confidentiality.

“I can’t give you an answer about whether I’m a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ on civilian oversight, because I think you do a disservice by saying no, because where do you go from there?” he said. “I think we need to recognize the concerns and impediments, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sit down and have a positive discourse.”

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Nationally, citizen oversight of police is rare. Of the nearly 18,000 police agencies nationwide, about 166 have a citizen-led oversight component of some form or another.

That number could soon increase dramatically, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which has received between 80 and 100 inquiries from communities looking for guidance on how to pursue civilian oversight.

Gaspar said he does not know of any other police agency in Maine with a civilian oversight structure like Portland’s. Complaints at most departments are handled by the internal affairs unit, which sometimes takes a different name, such as the Maine State Police’s Office of Professional Standards.

He is also highly skeptical of efforts to overlay national-level concerns about policing onto communities in Maine without first recognizing what police here get right. Unlike many states, Maine has a statewide certificate process for all officers conferred by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s board of trustees, who also may revoke or suspend officers’ certificates for criminal conduct.

Gaspar also was critical of any citizen-based oversight panel whose members have no law enforcement experience, especially if that board has power to make recommendations or decisions about investigations or their outcome, and urged local communities, the state Legislature and other critics to slow down and take an incremental approach.

Every city’s citizen oversight ordinance varies, but there are a handful of broad categories, with some cities combining various elements to suit their needs.

Large cities such as New York City and San Diego have investigative models that rely on citizen groups to lead or conduct independent investigations of complaints.

Other cities such as Albany, New York, and St. Petersburg, Florida, have review-based models that give citizens the ability to weigh in on the quality of the internal investigations, and in some cases recommend that officers take further investigative steps before a final determination is made.

A third general type used in Denver, New Orleans and other cities is the auditor model or inspector general model, in which auditors typically look for broad, pattern-based issues inside of a department, as opposed to evaluating and passing judgment on individual cases.

A 2016 survey of more than 60 member departments of the Major Cities’ Chiefs Association found that very few citizen review entities have the power to hand out officer discipline, and many do not have the power to subpoena witnesses or records. Those powers are problematic even to some advocates of police oversight, said Liana Perez, director of operations at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and the former police auditor for the city of Tuscon, Arizona.

“Many, many professionals in this field will tell you that the oversight agency should not necessarily have the ability to impose discipline,” Perez said. “Because then, who’s going to oversee the oversight agency that you’re imposing discipline fairly?”

In Portland, the seven-member board is not permitted to participate in investigations of complaints, issue subpoenas or call witnesses, or make recommendations or objections about decisions of officer discipline. All of those functions are still handled internally by police officers who investigate other officers through the internal affairs department. They also only see investigations related to complaints from citizens, and not from other other police officers.

Only when the internal investigation is completed – discipline has been handed out or the accusations dismissed – may the committee begin a confidential review to determine if the internal affairs investigation was thorough, fair, timely and objective. The committee can make recommendations about improving the process to the city manager. But it is not permitted to pass judgment on whether the outcome of an internal case was just and proper.

The ordinance does not provide standards for what is considered thorough, fair, timely and objective, and committee members, who serve three-year terms, began work this year to define the terms in writing.

Reggie Parson, who joined the committee three years ago, said that discussion about the limits of the process has grown since he joined the committee, but he’s also reluctant to call for change. He’s wary that advocacy is not within his role, but he is still listening to his colleagues’ opinions and is undecided about what needs to happen in the future.

First, though, Parson believes the committee should continue gathering public input and spreading awareness of the committee’s role.

“I think for the public to really critique us, they need to know who we are and what we do,” Parson said. “But if the public wants a different idea of what we can do, by all means, that’s something that’s up for debate. And if they want to change the ordinance, that’s great. I’ll do what the ordinance says.”

Committee members are researching different models of oversight for formal recommendation.

Meanwhile, last month, the subcommittee submitted to City Manager Jon Jennings a list of long-term and short-term recommendations to improve the process, including adding citizen representatives to an internal police use-of-force review committee and permitting the subcommittee to evaluate internal police complaints.

Jennings has not yet responded to the proposals, but thanked the committee for its work, a city spokeswoman said.

“As always, the City Manager appreciates the thoughtful input of the (board) and continues to be open to listening to more of their ideas,” wrote Dena Libner in an email message.

It’s unknown when Jennings might respond or what form it may take. The next subcommittee meeting is slated for September.

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark was traveling last week and not available to be interviewed for this story.

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The origins of Portland’s review board illustrate the tensions and challenges that come with citizen oversight.

Portland’s 2001 ordinance that created the committee was conceived after a 1998 high-profile case of alleged misconduct involving a white police officer and two Black immigrant teenagers in Portland.

On Memorial Day in 1998, Jackson Okot and Akim Carlo, then age 17 and 15, respectively, were stopped on Cumberland Avenue by police who were investigating a report of a young woman being harassed nearby by a group of teenagers. Okot and Carlo were walking to Kennedy Park to play basketball.

Police were looking for two teenagers who broke off the larger group, and stopped Okot and Carlo.

Sgt. Joseph Conicelli ordered the teenagers to the ground, arms spread wide, and frisked them for weapons, according to press reports at the time. When Okot turned his head to ask what was wrong, Okot said Conicelli pushed his head into the pavement with enough force to make his nose bleed and said, “welcome to America, (expletive),” allegedly using a racial slur for Black people. A crowd began to gather, and the police took the boys to the station, where they were soon released without charges.

Conicelli denied using the racial slur, said the teenagers were argumentative and verbally abusive, and argued the use of force was justified. An investigation by the Portland police internal affairs department found Conicelli did utter the phrase, “Welcome to America,” but that he did not use the racial slur. He was suspended for five days, and soon after retired from the force.

The teenagers, who contended the stop was racially motivated, filed suit in federal court, and in 2000, a jury found that Conicelli used excessive force and unlawfully detained them. The jury ordered Conicelli to pay them each $502 in damages. The city, the police department and Conicelli were later ordered to repay $22,000 in legal fees and associated costs to bring the case.

The next year, a city councilor, Thomas V. Kane, proposed an independent civilian review board to handle police complaints as a way to increase public confidence in the investigation of citizen complaints against police.

But Kane’s proposal, which would have given the independent group an active role during the internal affairs process and the power to suggest investigative steps and disciplinary outcomes, hit a wall.

At the time, the city was in negotiations with the Portland Police Benevolent Association over a new contract, and the talks were nearing an agreement, according to press accounts. The city sought input from the Maine Labor Relations Board about whether a more fully empowered civilian review board constituted a change in working conditions that necessitated bargaining.

The officers’ union prevailed, and a contract was finalized without addressing civilian oversight.

But the labor board’s decision left a narrow middle ground that would sidestep issues of bargaining: Allow the internal affairs process to run its course without citizen involvement in investigations or disciplinary decisions, but permit citizens to review the process after the fact to assess whether the internal affairs staff did their jobs sufficiently. In 2001, the City Council created the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, the state’s only citizen oversight mechanism for police, with that narrow task in mind.

“I think it’s no surprise that most committee members feel a little limited in our role,” said West. “I think we do serve a purpose. I don’t know if everyone would agree with that. I think we’re better than not having an oversight committee.”

The tensions of 20 years ago bear parallels to the calls for reform today, although complaints against the Portland Police Department have seen a steep, steady decline since a peak in 2000 of 145 complaints. In 2018, the last year for which statistics are available, police received 20 complaints, with 14 from the public and six from other officers. That year the department handled about 78,000 calls for service. Between 2014 and 2018, the average number of complaints against police was 22.

“I think there’s a belief in the police department that we’re not getting a lot of complaints, because we’re doing a good job,” said committee member April Fournier. “I don’t exactly subscribe to that.”

Fournier, who works in special education and is also Native American, said she sees how lower-income families, recent immigrants, people of color or those who do not speak English as a first language often struggle to break through in settings where no one looks like them, speaks like they do or understands their cultural history.

Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis touched off a call for reform unseen since the civil rights movement, and the effects continue to reverberate for people of color throughout Maine.

Demonstrators in Portland packed in front of the police station June 1 to protest racial injustice, mass incarceration and the killing of Black and brown people across the country by police at disproportionate rates.

As that civil protest devolved into open confrontation, officers were pelted with rocks, bottles and fireworks, and even in some cases, human urine, police said. Vandals broke windows across the Old Port and robbed a handful of stores of the goods inside. People spray-painted political and anti-law enforcement messages across town, and in some cases, across the police department’s brick facade and rolling steel garage door.

Officers were surrounded in their cruisers by demonstrators, a potentially explosive situation for police who were vastly outnumbered. Police responded that night by holding a firm line, calling in reinforcements from miles around. They doused some demonstrators in pepper spray, and fired less-than-lethal rounds toward the crowd. It was the most confrontational incident between protesters and police that week and in recent memory. Twenty-three people were arrested, mostly for failure to disperse.

And last month, Mumina Ali, a Portland woman who is also a former refugee from Somalia and a naturalized U.S. citizen, filed suit against the city and police over a 2014 incident in which she says an officer violated her civil and constitutional rights by using excessive force outside Maine Medical Center. In support of the allegations, the suit also alleges a broad pattern of unconstitutional mistreatment of refugees and others by systematic overpolicing of Black and refugee-populated neighborhoods, specifically in the Kennedy Park area of Portland.

The city has not responded to the lawsuit in court, and the legal process could take years to play out. The police have reopened an internal affairs investigation into the incident, although the complaint was cleared as unfounded at the time, according to a copy of a letter from internal affairs Ali’s daughter posted to social media.

The attorney in the case pointed to the consistently disproportionate number of arrests by Portland police of Black people, mirroring a national imbalance, as evidence that racial inequity does not bypass Maine. Black people represented 7 to 8 percent of the city’s population in the last four years, but more than 16 percent of arrests and more than 16 percent of incidents in which police used physical force.

“The numbers speak for themselves, said attorney Thomas Hallett, who represents the plaintiff, Ali. “The Portland Police Department is plagued by the same issues that other police departments are plagued by.”


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