PORTLAND, Maine — After five nights of vocal anti-racist rallies in the city, two of which devolved into clashes with police, officials from about a dozen local and state law enforcement agencies gathered Wednesday for their own press conference on the steps of City Hall.
They stated that they too were disturbed by the video of George Floyd’s death but called for peaceful protests only. Officials also stressed that they were open to future dialogue.
“We’ve heard the anger this week,” said Portland Police Chief Frank Clark. “We get the anger directed at us.”
Clark and other area police officials said they participated in a remote phone call yesterday with organizers of a protest scheduled for 4pm Wednesday. Clark said it went “extremely well.”
“I want to listen,” Clark said.
Clark took a knee when asked to do so at Tuesday night’s rally. He attempted to speak through a bullhorn Tuesday night but was shouted down.
Demonstrations in the city have varied in shape, size, and intention since they began last Friday. Most of them have transpired in large groups of 1,000 or more, who have congregated peaceably and with sustained demonstrations of righteous anger.
Other gatherings, police said, involved “instigators” that have arrived to protest areas after dark, including counter-protesters that police were able to suss out through social media.
The last two nights have been a “tale of two events,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said.
Since the protests began this week, police departments in Maine have been criticized for insufficient record-keeping of racial disparities in arrests and uses of force, and for receiving increased funding from annual city budgets while allocations for other social services have declined.
One police chief said Wednesday that crime was less of a problem in Portland than other municipalities in the U.S.
“Less than 50 percent of the time we are fighting crime; over 50 percent of the time we are serving the community,” Westbrook police chief Janine Roberts said.
Advocacy groups have identified that funds to policing increased 5.3 percent, or $896,927, in the city’s FY2020 budget. They have launched a campaign to petition the city’s Finance Committee to reduce the allocation to the Portland Police Department in a proposed city budget for fiscal year 2021, including replacing school resource officers, or SROs, with social service workers like counselors and mental health professionals, who are better trained for those services than police.
Several police officials on Wednesday condemned Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, with Sheriff Joyce calling it “upsetting, disgusting, and appalling.”
“The actions and inactions of those officers in the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be condoned,” Joyce said, adding that such events “create a ripple effect of fear, distrust and stigma” toward police. He said all sheriffs in Maine were willing to listen to citizens with concerns about bias and racism.
Clark said he was “shocked and appalled” by the video showing a Minneapolis officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck. But Clark urged local protestors to stay peaceful.
“We can’t let it turn into violence,” he said. “We can’t let it turn into destruction.”
Police arrested 10 people outside their headquarters on Middle Street Tuesday night after an antagonistic crowd which threw fireworks and water bottles was ordered to disperse.
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Other law enforcement chiefs echoed Clark and Joyce.
Yarmouth Police Chief Daniel Gallant said there is no place for racism in law enforcement.
“Maine must do better,” Gallant said.
Roberts, Westbrook’s police chief, said much the same but also laid some of the blame for violence on local and national media.
“You’re part of the problem,” Roberts said, accusing outlets of jumping to conclusions without all the facts.
She also expressed contrition after the phone call with Black leaders who have organized the protests.
“Hearing that young man say that every time they see a police officer they think ‘Today it’s gonna be me, I’m gonna be killed’ — that’s an eye-opening statement,” Roberts said.
More anti-racist rallies are planned in the city, including one at City Hall later Wednesday afternoon.