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Last June, the Maine Legislature passed a good but watered down bill aimed at ending racial and other profiling by police in the state. As the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Hickman, told the BDN this week, “something is better than nothing.”
It’s time to demand something better than “better than nothing” — from the Legislature, from law enforcement, and from those of us who haven’t spoken out forcefully enough on issues of race and inequality such as this.
“Now, we have always known that law enforcement officers are hard-working women and men whose concern for the safety of those they are charged with protecting and serving is paramount, even when their own lives are on the line,” Hickman said in his written testimony last year. “However, if and when even one of their colleagues engages in discriminatory profiling tactics, whether it be conscious or subconscious, based on explicit or implicit bias, the trust of the entire community can be, and will be, lost.”
But according to testimony from police chiefs, sheriffs and other officials Hickman’s approach was too burdensome, too costly, and even too offensive. Lawmakers did ultimately pass the bill’s prohibition on profiling and its requirement for law enforcement training to include anti-profiling education. However, the requirement that profiling data be collected from law enforcement agencies across the state during all routine and spontaneous investigations was amended to a weaker directive for the Maine Attorney General to compile a report on available ways to collect and compile this data. That report was released in March.
Without expressly saying so, the information included in that report makes a good case for returning to Hickman’s original outline for moving forward with collecting and analyzing this data.
The report details three potential options: a data collection system similar to several other states; formalizing the Attorney General’s racial profiling complaint policy to assess the need for a more expansive program; or changing reporting policy through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. In a statement to the BDN, Attorney General Aaron Frey said that the options “are not mutually exclusive” and that “there may be value in drawing from each recommendation” to make sure the data is actionable. Other options could also emerge, Frey said.
The question isn’t whether a robust racial profiling data collection program should be the path forward. States like Connecticut and California have already proven it’s possible. The question is how to get it done here in Maine. That’s admittedly a big question — one for which we don’t have all the answers. But the same reservations cannot continue to stand in the way.
For instance, some law enforcement leaders have argued that requiring officers to consistently collect and report information such as race, ethnicity, and gender during interactions like traffic stops, and relying on the officers’ perception, would actually force them to profile people. And if you have officers ask individuals directly for this information, officials say, it could make the public uncomfortable. But as Hickman pointed out this week, “profiling is about appearance,” so relying on the officers’ perception makes sense, and also avoids the need for that questioning.
Leaders in San Jose, California reached this conclusion 20 years ago when its police department began collecting racial profiling data. This is hardly unprecedented.
“It seemed unimportant whether the officer had correctly guessed the race or ethnicity of the driver; what seemed important was to analyze whether, having perceived the driver as a person of color, the officer treated the person fairly,” a 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Justice said about the San Jose process.
Asked about Hickman’s bill and collecting profiling data, Maine Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Sauschuck told the BDN this week that his department largely agrees with the concept but says it’s a matter of “how do we actually get this done?”
Sauschuck said he wants to talk to officials in places like Connecticut to get a sense of the best way to gather this type of data. He pointed to a discussion held Friday with the University of Maine Law School about racial injustice and policing as an example of ongoing conversations.
During that online event, Gov. Janet Mills said she has, “as a start,” asked Sauschuck to review law enforcement policies, including those related to racial profiling, and to develop reccomendations to strengthen those policies and Maine law. Our recommendation: revisit Hickman’s original bill.
We hope that the ability of the University of Maine System to conduct research and analyze data is not overlooked in these conversations. And we’d point out that the chancellor of the UMaine system is the former governor of Connecticut who implemented racial profiling data collection and analysis there.
The limited data that does exist tells us that profiling happens, and happens here in Maine. It also tells us that, despite resistance from law enforcement, this data can be, and, in some cases, is, already being collected. Having more universal and accessible data would help clarify how often and where profiling happens. That clarity can be good for the public, and good for the police in their continued efforts to maintain — and in many cases regain — community trust.
“So much of what we see, and so much of what we don’t see, all starts with profiling,” Hickman told the BDN.
Maine should be collecting this data across the state so it can be compiled and analyzed. The past objections and discomfort don’t hold up to the scrutiny and tension of this moment and the continued movement toward equal justice. Complexities and unanswered questions remain, but they should no longer be impediments to more meaningful action.