Diversity remains elusive for Portland Police Department

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The Portland Police Department, Maine’s largest law enforcement agency, recently hired six new officers.

All of them were men, and five of the six were white.

The one nonwhite officer, representing about 17 percent of the new hires, could be seen as a sign of progress: In a city with a nonwhite population of about 15 percent, fewer than 5 percent of its police officers are nonwhite.

Department spokesperson David Singer said as of Aug. 12 there are 153 officers in the department, and 146 of them are white. There are six Black officers, one Asian officer, and 13 women.

Maine, meanwhile, remains the least diverse state in the country. But its nonwhite population has increased in the last 10 years to about 9 percent of the state’s 1.36 million residents, according to U.S. Census data released last week.

The lack of Police Department diversity is also reflected in several promotions announced in the spring. They included Lt. Robert Martin and Lt. Jason King, two white men, to the rank of major, and Maj. F. Heath Gorham, another white man, to assistant chief.

Singer said despite the almost entirely white police force, the department tries to recruit more diverse candidates.

“The recruitment team sends the most diverse group of officers possible to recruitment events,” he said. “And our Community Policing Unit plays a big part, too, by allowing early and regular positive engagement with youth in our city’s neighborhoods. Those kinds of relationships are built over a long period of time and often lead to teens and young adults wanting to become a part of the agency that helped them.”

During a discussion with the City Council in July to consider recommendations from the now-disbanded Racial Equity Steering Committee, Police Chief Frank Clark outlined the difficulties Portland faces in finding and hiring qualified candidates.

Clark said applicants undergo a values-based screening process that includes a written test, which screens for “integrity, aggression, deviance, ethical and moral character, honesty, level of fairness and equity;” a panel review, which includes community representation, and a background investigation.

The background check includes a polygraph test and indications of physical or mental health issues; substance use; criminal behavior; motor vehicle offenses; accusations of domestic violence, aggression or use of force; involvement in terrorist or subversive organizations, and other integrity questions.

The department last year also began screening for bias-related concerns, Clark said. According to a 12-page memo he sent to the racial equity panel, applicants are screened for personal prejudice, racism, white supremacist beliefs, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and any other type of discrimination.

Additionally, there is a job suitability assessment by an external psychologist, a physical exam, and a pre-employment drug screening. Although marijuana use is legal in Maine, applicants with traces of the drug in their system will not be hired, the chief said.

This process leads to just 4 percent of applicants successfully completing the process. Clark said there were close to 200 applicants in the last round of hiring.

Successful candidates must complete approximately nine months of training before they are assigned to a patrol, and officers are subject to ongoing supervision and required to wear body cameras.

The department is currently accepting applications for police officers, and there is a $10,000 sign-on bonus available to new hires. The department’s recruitment website says applications are for the January 2022 Maine Criminal Justice Academy and warns the average hiring process can take up to four months.

The department also scheduled a so-called “lateral” hiring event for Aug. 17, aimed at recruiting fully certified officers from other departments to come to Portland at their current rank.

Singer said only about 4 percent of those applied in the department’s most recent hiring period ended up becoming officers. In March, 387 people applied for open positions, but only 155 took the written and physical tests; 27 were women, and 40 were non-white individuals.

Just 72 passed both tests, and of those, only 38 were recommended by a hiring panel. Six of those withdrew, 18 were removed following the background check, and one withdrew. Ten candidates took the polygraph. Seven of those passed, and then two candidates withdrew.

Just five applicants from the original pool were hired.