WESTBROOK — Westbrook Police used force in less than 1% of their arrests from 2016 to 2019, but that use of force disproportionately involved Black people, according to Police Department data provided to the American Journal.

A number of complex factors go into the use of force data and making generalizations from it is unwise, the police chief and local racial equity advocates say. Still, the data points to the need to continue conversations about race relations between police and residents, they said.

Between 2016 and 2019, 14%-17% of officers’ use of force involved Black people, but just 2.3% of Westbrook residents are Black, according to the 2010 census demographics, the most recent available.

 

“Obviously it’s disproportionate,” said Harrison Deah, a racial equity advocate and director of Westbrook’s General Assistance office.This conversation has to be ongoing in order to address this kind of issue, there are more questions to be asked.”

Use of force ranges from threats of physical restraint to actual physical restraint. For example, threatening to use a Taser to mitigate a dangerous incident or to assist in the arrest of an unwilling suspect is considered a use of force, as is actually tasing someone or restraining them by other physical means.

In 2019, police responded to about 20,000 incidents with 117 of those resulting in a use of force. Of those incidents of force, 30, or about 25%, were on Black people and 87, or about 75%, were white.

Roberts

Numbers for the previous year differ slightly but the percentages are similar, which advocates say could point to a pattern of profiling and more difficult police treatment for Black people.

“I do not feel safe around police here. I know they do great things, but it can be hard to walk with dignity here,” said John Ochira, a Black resident who said he has had numerous run-ins with Westbrook  police.

Ochira describes run-ins as times in which he is stopped and questioned, not necessarily leading to an arrest.

“I don’t fear other people in Westbrook, I feel comfortable,” Ochira said. “I’ve never had a private citizen say anything to me. People here are nice, but when I am out, I can count on being stopped by police.”

Ochira recalled a number of times when he felt profiled. He has been stopped “often” while walking by officers who would ask “multiple questions.”  

“I was walking around the block with my laundry when I was stopped. I was getting ready to (go back to college),” Ochira said, describing his “biggest” run-in. “What was me walking with laundry turned into multiple police having me sit on the side of the road, pressuring me to let them search me, search in my house. I hadn’t done anything.”

Ochira said while police didn’t use force on him, he does believe the disparity in the statistics is indicative of a bias among the police.

“It’s not just me, it’s every (Black person) I talk to. We need to talk more, not just once,” he said.

Rwaganje

Use of force data is complicated, according to Deah, Police Chief Janine Roberts and City Councilor Claude Rwaganje.

When multiple officers use force on one suspect, it counts as multiple incidents. For example, if three officers use force on one person, that’s three incidents of use of force. One incident feasibly could drive numbers for any demographic.

Repeat offenders may also drive numbers up for any given demographic, and data doesn’t show whether a suspect is a resident.

Nor does the data include whether officers were responding to self-initiated calls, mutual aid calls or calls from a residence.

“It’s tough as well because the population has changed since the census in 2010, so it will be interesting to see how that pairs up,” Rwaganje said.

The Police Department lacks the staffing power and the technology platform needed to dig deeper into the data and break down each incident, Roberts said. Requests for specific data regarding the number of times force is used are new to the department, she said.

“With the increased scrutiny of police officers’ contacts and interactions with people of color in recent months, the Westbrook Police Department has seen a significant increase in public information requests for data related to race, gender and ethnicity,” Roberts said.

“The staff hours needed to conduct research and create reports can be extensive,” she said. “Creating time in staff’s already full schedules to meet the increased requests is operationally challenging.”

Despite that, the department is committed to providing what information it can, she said.

The data shows that each year at least 70% of use of force incidents are related to substance misuse or mental health issues, according to the police data.

“Another part of this conversation is that police are doing too much. It’s not about them being bad always, but that they are dealing with mental health crises when they are not social workers,” Deah said.

“Part of this conversation, when talking about force and race, also needs to include what other resources we may need, whether that is more crisis intervention staff or more programs to take this off of police hands,” he said.

Roberts said she is committed to having conversations around the data and looking at ways to better engage people of color in the city.

“Now that these issues are on our radar, it’s my job to talk about this and see what we can do with our community,” she said.

Rwaganje plans to set up additional workshops to get input.

“Defund police, that’s not a solution. We need them, they do good things, more than the bad. I want to work together,” said Rwaganje, an immigrant from the Congo. “We do not want to change who we are. I don’t want to leave my culture. I want to be me, but we need to work with police and other citizens to make changes.”

Roberts said she is concerned about how residents like Ochira feel about the local police, and she hopes continued conversations can address that.

“I don’t want it to be Black people versus the police,” Rwaganje said. “I want this to be teamwor. I want us to really make change, now is the time.”

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