The Portland Police Department is adopting more rigorous anti-bias training, relying more on non-police specialists to help on mental health-related calls, and has begun screening new police applicants for bias-related conduct and concerns.

Those were some of the changes Chief Frank Clark outlined when he appeared before a City Council workshop Tuesday night to present the department’s progress and itemized responses to the list of recommendations made this spring by the city’s racial equity steering committee. The group was convened after the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide uprisings that called for racial justice and greater police accountability and oversight.

Among the new efforts is a program to send mental health professionals instead of police to respond on some calls for well-being checks and behavioral health complaints when it’s safe to do so. The work builds on a program that already embeds mental health workers with police on certain calls.

But the plan is short of the racial equity steering committee’s full recommendation to remove mental health-related and other non-crime related crisis calls from police responsibility and move them to an agency out of city control to engender more trust and provide better outcomes for citizens. Clark also said the agency would begin pursuing a national accreditation status, which can take years to achieve, as a way to ensure policies and procedures meet national standards.

The chief also said he was open to discussing reforming the city’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee. The only citizen-led police oversight group in the state, it has limited power to review some of Portland police internal affairs cases. But Clark did not commit to any structural changes, as was recommended by the equity steering committee, which sought to disband the subcommittee and replace it with an outside investigative group not associated with police.

Currently, the internal affairs division, comprising two sworn officers, investigates fellow officers in response to internal and external complaints with no input from outside the department. The Portland subcommittee, formed in response to a high-profile beating of a Black teenager by a white Portland police officer, has no power to change investigation outcomes, only to assess whether the internal affairs investigation was satisfactory.

Councilors Pious Ali and April Fournier pressed Clark about adopting more citizen-led oversight of citizen complaint investigations, but Clark demurred and did not commit to any path forward.

“It’s been 20 years since the current iteration of the PCRS (was formed),” Clark said. “We’re willing to talk about it and see what makes sense here in 2021. With 20 years behind us, I think it’s time for a conversation, for sure. I don’t have an answer for what the best model is.”

Councilor Tae Chong praised the department as a national role model for progressive policing, and highlighted that Portland was named the safest of 150 desirable places to live by U.S. News & World Report.

“The police department we have in Portland is vastly different than anything we have in the state of Maine and maybe the country,” Chong said.

The racial equity steering committee was formed by the city after demonstrators in Portland and across the country swarmed city streets in an outpouring of frustration and sadness following Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

The report it released in April made wide-ranging recommendations, some of which already have been incorporated into police policy and practice, Clark said.


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