Protesters face off with police officers on Middle Street in Portland June 1, when violence erupted between demonstrators and police and 22 protesters were eventually arrested. (Courtesy Rachel Bernstein)
advertisementSmiley face

While most Portland city councilors are expecting a review June 22 from the city manager of police interactions with protesters during a June 1 demonstration against the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, one councilor is calling for an independent investigation into the Portland police response.

Councilor Pious Ali announced during a June 9 Health and Human Services and Public Safety committee meeting that he officially requested the investigation. He was addressing Police Chief Frank Clark, acknowledging Clark might not want to comment at the time.

Mayor Kate Snyder said a request came in June 6, a day after the large Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, for a council workshop on the protests and Police Department response. The council will consider that on June 22.

Ali on Monday said his request is completely separate from what will be discussed June 22.

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali.

“We need to hear the many different aspects of what happened that night,” he said regarding the June 1 protest where demonstrators and police officers clashed and 22 protesters were arrested.

Ali said he has heard from a handful of people regarding what transpired, but would not elaborate, saying he wanted to respect the confidentiality of those individuals for now. He said these individuals are, however, interested in speaking to an independent investigator.

“This is why I will be continuously pushing forward,” Ali said. “It is not to investigate the police per se, but to investigate that night so we know what to do in terms of similar situations in the future.”

During the June 9 committee meeting, committee Chair Belinda Ray asked councilors not to discuss the police budget, since that will come up in the Finance Committee, which is next scheduled for June 18. Ray also asked councilors not to discuss the protests specifically, and the meeting did not permit public comment, although nearly 70 members of the public were viewing the remote meeting.

“Tonight, what we are focused on is doing something our community is calling for us to do, go through police policies,” she said.

Ray said this type of oversight may extend to other city departments as the council looks at systemic racism.

Portland police released their previously withheld use-of-force policy last week after the protests that followed the killing of Floyd last month by a Minneapolis police officer who kept a knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Clark said the Portland department had been going through its policies, and had planned to make them public as they were updated.

The use-of-force policy explicitly bans chokeholds, neck restraints and other techniques that put pressure on a person’s throat, as these methods are considered deadly force.

Ali said he wanted a third-party investigation because, while he is looking forward to hearing the June 22 report, that is just one side of the story.

“Just listening to one side will not give us that opportunity,” he said.

Ali said while the council discussion of the events of June 1 is important, the third-party investigation will show members of the public their voices are heard.

“The public sees anything that comes from the council to be part of the police, we are city government,” Ali said. “Anything connected to the city government … there is a breach of trust. In order to reverse that we need to have a third party who is separated from us who people may feel comfortable engaging.”

Ali said he wasn’t sure exactly what that third-party investigation might look like, but has passed the request on to city staff. He said he believes Snyder will work with the city’s corporation counsel to move forward, with hope that by next week there might be more information and “clarity on where we go with the investigation.”

“I’m looking forward to June 22 when we have that workshop with police,” he said.

Ali is not the only observer who has expressed concerns about the events of June 1.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said her organization was aware of “disturbing reports” of police using pepper spray on protestors during the June 1 protest.

Using force to silence those protesters is unacceptable and unconstitutional.

“Using force to silence those protesters is unacceptable and unconstitutional,” she said. “And it’s only amplified that it was during a protest about police violence.” 

Beyea said it is the role of the police to “facilitate free speech and prevent violence” while managing crowds, and said use of force doesn’t accomplish anything like that.

“It usually has the opposite effect,” she said. “It usually escalates threats to public safety.”

Beyea said these events show it’s time to “fundamentally reimagine the role of police in our communities.” She said using pepper spray on protesters is just one example.

“As a community, we need to come together and rethink the role of the police,” she said.

Beyea didn’t specifically call for defunding of local police departments, but did say it was important to focus on what policing looks like in local communities. She said for too long governments have taken resources away from education and housing, and put money into police departments, which she called “a fundamental misuse of resources” that has had a “disproportionate impact” on communities of color both in Maine and around the country.

“For us, that’s the conversation we need to be having,” Beyea said. “Why aren’t we investing in our schools? Why are we putting (school resource officers) in budgets instead of school counselors?”

Beyea said there has never been a more important time to be engaged with city government like the City Council or School Board.

“This is a time when everyone needs to make their voice heard and pay very close attention to where their communities invest their resources,” she said. 

Portland PD: Just the facts

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark on June 9 told city councilors his department currently has 161 sworn officers and nine open positions. He said due to the coronavirus pandemic, the department is in a “holding pattern” when it comes to hiring. He said about 94 percent of the PPD budget goes to personnel costs.

The department’s current operating budget is nearly $17.8 million.

According to public information, under a union contract that took effect at the end of last year, new police officers start at a pay rate of $23.87 per hour. The rate steadily climbs as officers rise in the ranks, capping at just over $30 per hour for an officer with 18 or more years of experience. The pay scale is different for detectives, court officers and evidence technicians, who make more than standard police officers.

Under the contract, no disciplinary action can be taken against a department member who has completed a two-year working test period and is covered by the contract agreement “without due notice.” Any disciplinary action taken during the working test period is governed by a civil service ordinance.

Anyone who has completed the test period and is charged with a violation is entitled to a hearing before any disciplinary action can be taken. These hearings are informal in nature.

Following the initial hearing, the chief decides if there is a need for disciplinary action. This can be a reprimand, warning, or suspension. Suspensions are not for more than 30 days for one offense, and cannot exceed 45 days in aggregate during a 12-month period.

Employees must be notified in writing if disciplinary actions will be taken. Written reprimands involving alleged violations are placed in an employee’s personnel file, “unless the member is first given a copy of the written reprimand.” In this case, the officer has the opportunity to respond in writing to the chief and contest the reprimand.

In 2019, Clark said, the department received more than 80,000 calls for service. Of those, 2,651 resulted in arrests. Clark said officers used force 0.13 percent of the time relative to the calls for service, or nearly 4 percent of the time relative to the number of arrests.

In 2015, the PPD had 127 use-of-force reports; in 2016, that number jumped to 168; In 2017 it fell back to 114, and it fell even further to 75 in 2018. In 2019, there were 101 use-of-force reports.

Clark said any physical force that results in injury or death must be reported for command review. This includes using a firearm, Taser, pepper spray, baton, impact projectile, striking or kicking a suspect, and a police canine biting a suspect. Essentially, anything beyond handcuffing or regular hand restraints must be reported, he said.

Clark said officers can call for internal investigations against each other, if they believe lines have been crossed. There are external complaints as well, which are made by members of the public.

According to the chief, in 2015 there were 17 complaints made against Portland police officers, 10 of which were external. In 2016 there were 24 complaints, 14 of which were external. There were 21 complaints, eight of which were external, in 2017; 20 complaints, 14 of which were external in 2018, and in 2019 there were 13 complaints, six of which were external.

— Colin Ellis

Spotters, not snipers

After reports circulated on social media, Portland police acknowledged at the June 10 meeting of the Police Citizen Subcommittee meeting that armed officers had been placed on downtown rooftops during the June 1 Black Lives Matter rally.

Cmdr. James Sweatt said they were stationed there after learning armed counter-protesters planned to attend the demonstration.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin later said “we did have two officers in place to protect the peaceful protestors, officers, and general public – and because the police had information about counter-protesters and people who could be armed.

“The two officers were spotters,” she said. “They were armed, but they were not pointing a firearm at anyone. What is seen in photos being pointed is a spotting scope on a tripod. It is a completely separate device and not part of the firearm.”

Grondin said there would be no further comment from the city until a report is completed for the June 22 City Council workshop.

— Colin Ellis