Two universities have agreed to study why people of color are arrested and subject to use of force at disproportionately high rates in Portland and South Portland.

The University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute and Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice will undertake a 12-month study of three years of policing data from each city to determine whether either department’s enforcement activities have been biased against people of color.

Data released by the Portland Police Department last year shows that Black people are arrested at a rate more than twice what the city’s population might suggest. The disparity mirrors national data and statistics released by South Portland.

The study, which will occur over three phases and will conclude by establishing a process by which each department can conduct similar analyses in the future, comes in the wake of protests in Maine and nationwide last summer that demanded an end to police violence against people of color and other forms of systemic racism.

While the researchers credited the cities for launching the study, one national expert on race and policing expressed concern that neither of the research teams listed in the contract appeared to include people of color and that the study will not include interviews with people of color who were arrested or cited during the period being examined.

Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice, said he has conducted similar studies for other police departments in the United States, including in Seattle, Kansas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. He said his previous studies have shown that people of color are more likely to be searched and issued a citation, rather than a warning. McDevitt said he will partner with Carlos Cuevas, who just concluded a national study of Anti-Latinx hate crimes.

McDevitt credited Portland Police Chief Frank Clark for requesting the study. He said it’s unusual for a police department to volunteer for such a study, which is usually done in response to a major incident, state law or a lawsuit.

“I think it’s very exciting. It reflects the police department’s awareness that people are asking these questions,” McDevitt said. “They are asking these questions all across the country, but only a handful of police leaders are reaching out to get the answers themselves. I think it speaks very well for Portland and South Portland.”

Clark said the study is one of the ways the department is trying to meet the demand for more transparency and accountability. He said the department has not been able to truly analyze this type of data because of its outdated technology and a lack of understanding what type of data the department should be looking at.

“It’s to help us understand what the data sets are that we should be looking at in order to do a true analysis instead of just doing a review of the raw data,” Clark said. “It’s to help us dig down and figure out the questions we should be asking.”

McDevitt said the analysis will look only at the data from each department, and will not include interviews with people of color who were arrested during the study period, though he said researchers would conduct outreach to “concerned groups.”

Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, a visiting professor at Howard University’s Department of Sociology and Criminology who has spent 30 years studying, writing and teaching about race, policing and the American justice system, said the chief’s request for a study was “an important first step” toward confronting implicit, or unconscious bias, in policing.

But Jones-Brown is worried that the analysis will not be accepted by people of color because it’s being conducted by institutions in largely white cities and states, and none of the researchers named in the contract are people of color. She’s also concerned that the study will only look at existing data, and not include any interviews with people of color who were arrested.

“For members of the Black community in Portland, it is highly likely that the absence of such scholars will render the research findings ‘suspect’ if a determination is made that the racial disparities in arrests do not reflect overt or implicit racial bias in PPD’s practices,” Jones-Brown said. “This can be cured by the city inviting Black researchers from a Historically Black College or University to partner with the researchers who have been awarded these contracts.”

“I also do not see any survey of line police officers that attempts to understand their reasoning and views regarding their role as police or assessing whether they may have implicit racial biases or be aware of officers who have overt racial biases,” she added. “Without this more in-depth data collection beyond departmental statistics, the proposed investigation and academic research runs the risk of being seen as ‘window dressing’ if it ends with findings that are equivocal or exonerating with regard to whether the Portland PD engages in racially biased policing.”

According to data released by the city last June, Black people accounted for nearly 17 percent of all arrests in 2019, despite only making up about 8 percent of the city’s population. It was a continuation of a pattern over previous years in which black people accounted for 17.5 percent, 23 percent and 21 percent of the arrests in 2018, 2017 and 2016, respectively.

Black people also made up a disproportionate amount of citations and uses of force.

The trend mirrors national statistics, which show that black people everywhere in the United States are at a greater risk of being arrested than white people. In 2018, black Americans accounted for 27 percent of all the people arrested in the U.S., but represented only about 13 percent of the population, according to FBI crime data.

Clark said both Portland and South Portland will be updating their records management systems, which should make it easier to extract data for analysis. The city also is planning to put more of that data, as well as more of its policies and procedures, online to help “break down the wall.”

“It’s about transparency and building trust and accountability,” Clark said.

South Portland Police Chief Tim Sheehan also welcomed the review in a written statement.

“We are very excited to partner with both universities and have them provide us with an objective interpretation of the data,” Sheehan said.

The study will look at arrests, summonses, citations and uses of force for 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The first phase will focus on quality and availability of existing data and reaching out to stakeholders. The second phase will delve into that data to examine the race, ethnicity, age, gender and geography, including the location of the arrest or crime report and the residency of the arrestee. It also will consider the demographics of the arresting officer. And the research team’s analysis will be aided by the Roux Institute.

The final phase of the study will be to build capacity within each department to conduct similar analysis going forward.

Clark said Portland is paying 70 percent of the costs for the study, with additional funding from South Portland and the Roux Institute.

According to the agreement, Portland will pay about $39,000 for the first half of the study on arrest and summons data. The final phases of analysis/reporting of citations, use of force and crime victim/unidentified suspect information, as well as the capacity building, are contingent upon funding support from the Roux Institute. Clark said that support has been secured.

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said his city is paying about $21,000 for the study.

In response to protests nationally and in Portland last summer, Mayor Kate Snyder and the City Council established a Racial Equity Steering Committee to investigate systemic racism in the police department. The group has until April 1 complete its work, but has already released some draft recommendations, which include increasing citizen oversight of police, establishing a Department of Racial Equity and a Human Rights Commission, and appointing a permanent Racial Equity Board.

The city also has hired an outside firm to investigate the police response to the June 1-2 protests in Portland last year, which drew an estimated 2,500 people. The demonstrations, like others last summer, began peacefully but became violent later at night, and several businesses were burglarized or damaged. Police from Portland and other communities and agencies dressed in riot gear used pepper spray to control the crowd, arresting 30 people over two days.

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