Student protesters are joined by police June 4 at the South Portland police station in a demonstration against institutional racism. Protests that erupted last spring locally and across the nation have led South Portland to form two committees to address concerns about systemic racism and effective policing.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council agreed Tuesday night to establish two committees to address concerns about systemic racism and effective policing in the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund police departments.

The council voted unanimously to form what would be the first municipal Human Rights Commission in Maine, as well as a Police Services Review Task Force to examine how city police officers do their jobs and how their efforts can be improved.

The council was the first municipal group in Maine to take public action in response to protests that erupted last spring locally and across the nation following several police killings of Black people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The council decided during fiscal 2021 budget deliberations in June to fund a Human Rights Commission with $30,000 taken from the proposed police budget. If the council gives final approval on Sept. 29, the commission could be formed as soon as Oct. 19.

Residents and councilors were emotional and effusive following Tuesday’s vote, saying they were grateful and eager for the commission to begin its work.

“I am so proud to live in this city,” said Pedro Vazquez, a resident who helped draft the ordinance creating the commission, along with Margaret Brownlee.

Mayor Kate Lewis called creating the commission a “historic” event and Councilor April Caricchio said it reflects not only “who we are but also who we aspire to be.”

While many government agencies have issued statements condemning racism, “we are taking solid, concrete action,” said Councilor Misha Pride. Councilor Deqa Dhalac said forming the commission countered “all the negative things happening all over this country.”

“I could not possibly be more excited about this,” said Councilor Katie Bruzgo.

The council took action as officials in neighboring Portland reconsider the purpose of a Police Citizen Review Subcommittee that has existed quietly for years. Last week, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder named a 13-member Racial Equity Steering Committee, formed by resolution in July, that’s expected to issue a report in January recommending ways to reduce systemic racism in the city, including in policing.

South Portland’s Human Rights Commission is intended to be a permanent panel working against hatred, bigotry and discrimination in the community through education and municipal oversight.

It would promote awareness and inclusion of diverse, often marginalized groups, including indigenous, Black and other people of color; low-income families, people who have disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community.

It also would review city policies and recommend changes to root out racism and implicit bias; and handle complaints of human rights violations against city employees and officials. It would refer complaints to the Maine Human Rights Commission and the city manager.

The 13-member commission would include nine voting members appointed by councilors, including a youth representative age 16-22; and four ex-officio members representing the police, planning, human resources and school departments.

In case a future council doesn’t share the current council’s enthusiasm, the ordinance would require a two-thirds vote by all seven councilors to dissolve the commission.

The Police Services Review Task Force, approved unanimously in a final vote Tuesday, is a working group with a specific task. The council also allocated $15,000 from its contracted services account and surplus funds to hire a facilitator to assist the working group.

The group is expected to review police department records, policies and practices to determine whether changes could be made to improve the response to certain calls for service. The group is expected to complete its work and issue a report to the council in February.

Police Chief Tim Sheehan said he was “very interested” in participating in the working group, also with the city’s fire chief, behavioral health liaison, social services director, finance director, a city councilor and three residents.

Councilor Pride, who proposed the working group, offered the example of a call for assistance to a homeless person that possibly could be addressed more effectively by a social worker or paramedic than a police officer.

Councilor Susan Henderson noted that police often step in where society falls short, especially when responding to calls involving mental health issues and substance abuse.

“If the police don’t do it, I’m not sure there’s anybody else that’s going to pick up the pieces,” Henderson said.

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