CAPE ELIZABETH — Three commentaries defending the Portland police force have been published this summer in the Press Herald. I found the first one, by Portland Police Chief Frank Clark, the most measured and thoughtful. I appreciated his emphasis that we must all work together to provide a safe city, with respect for all, where there is no place for violence, threats or hate.

It is clear from recent events that the police and the community are in tension. The protests in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd were triggered not only by that event or even by the multiple deaths of Black people at the hands of police. The trust and support needed by police in order to function well in a community were already frayed. Research in Portland and in Maine has shown that at every point of contact with police, prosecutors and judges, persons of color receive harsher treatment than a similarly placed white suspect or defendant. We must be up front and acknowledge that even though Portland police already abide by the “8 Can’t Wait” policies, including the prohibition of chokeholds, we still find ourselves unable to be without bias as a society.

We must explore this. We need to admit the history of policing in America is enmeshed with slavery and slave patrols; with a military mindset in which loyalty to a fellow officer is often more highly esteemed than truth or accountability; with guns because, unlike other developed countries, its citizenry is armed. And although police are made up of a plethora of local agencies with local control, federal manipulation has transferred surplus military hardware to municipal police forces, so that now it seems natural to don riot gear and too frequently view citizens as the enemy. The culture of an institution is a powerful force on its members, regardless of underlying philosophy.

When I first heard it, I was taken aback by the call to “defund the police,” but I realize that this call to action can help us think about what it is we want to change. It is not that we do not want a police force, but that we do not want criminal-justice representatives to be handling issues that can be better addressed by other experts in social services. One high-visibility area is in schools. Many agree that school discipline should be in the hands of school staff and students. Restorative justice techniques have been shown to be effective and more even handed.

We need to reconsider across the board what we want police to focus on, what lies with other experts and how we want to set the tone for this kind of team approach. It is not necessary that the police are always the lead agency or that they have the last word. It will take difficult negotiations to agree on a distribution of authority as well as the money needed for social services so that issues can be resolved in a holistic manner.

A critical balance of power is that between police unions and the municipalities where their members are employed. For example, disciplinary records should be kept on record and open to review by appropriate personnel so that a municipality can know about any officer with a disciplinary record. That history should also be open to any other municipality that considers hiring an officer who has been employed elsewhere. We can no longer allow records to be shredded at the behest of the union and officers permitted to leave one setting under a cloud only to be picked up by another.

I am hopeful that we can indeed begin to work together. We are fortunate not to be starting from square one in Portland. But we do need a police force who will listen carefully to the community without becoming defensive. As historian Ibram X. Kendi has pointed out, we are all racist and anti-racist at the same time. Let’s put our efforts into being anti-racist.


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