During his second day on the job, Portland Police Department Interim Chief Heath Gorham said with a laugh that things were going fine – so far.
Gorham, 44, was placed in command of the more than 150-officer department after the surprise resignation of Chief Frank Clark, who left after two years on the job. He takes over a department that has recently had a revolving door in the chief’s office and that he admits has “really been in flux.”
In the interview at the Middle Street police headquarters last week, Gorham, a 20-year veteran of the department, said he’s been learning the ropes for several weeks because Clark was “not in the building.”
“It’s a matter of getting through the transition, meeting folks, understanding where people are at, and moving forward,” he said.
Gorham is the fourth head of the department since 2018 when Michael Sauschuck resigned after six years in the job. Former Assistant Chief Vern Malloch served as interim chief after Sauschuck; Malloch, who was a candidate for the position, retired from the department after Clark was hired in 2019.
The turnover interrupted more than just the department’s chain of command.
“There were a number of projects in process we need to move forward on,” Gorham said.
These include a data project with the Roux Institute and the Cutler Institute on the department’s arrests and other statistics, and an accreditation process that reviews policies and procedures. He called that an opportunity for an outside agency to come in and see how Portland is doing things.
The leadership changes also coincided with a watershed moment for police departments everywhere. To say 2020 was anything but an incredible challenge for law enforcement would be an understatement, Gorham said.
When speaking directly about the events of that summer, particularly the Black POWER demonstrations and protests and the ensuing calls to defund police, Gorham said the department has tried to maintain a positive relationship with the community.
“Our feedback from residents and business owners, they recognize the professionalism and the service we provide,” he said. “It’s an ongoing challenge. We want to be out in the community.”
Gorham said the city’s community policing service is “robust,” with six stations where officers routinely fan out and interact with people, especially youth.
“I think we have a strong relationship (with the community), and one we continue to build on and continue to work on,” he said.
When asked about the department’s recruiting efforts, specifically for women and people of color, Gorham said recruitment, in general, is a challenge. There are 153 officers in Portland, and 146 of them are white; six are Black, one is Asian, and 13 are women.
Of the 10 most recent promotions in the last six months, just two were women.
Gorham said the department has developed a recruitment team and is trying to become more responsive to people interested in joining – especially members of under-represented communities. A police spokesperson said a typical salary for a first-year officer is $54,000.
One challenge, Gorham said, is there are fewer opportunities for youth engagement. For example, the department no longer is able to fund a police athletic officer who worked with youth in the community.
Another avenue of community engagement Gorham feels the department lacks is its presence in public schools. In July 2020, the School Board removed school resource officers, something Gorham said has hurt both engagement and recruitment.
“We were disappointed when our officers were removed,” he said, adding the department hopes a time will come when SROs will be restored.
Fighting crime, hearsay
Regarding crime in the city, specifically recent high profile and often random crimes such as women being stalked or attacked in the West End, Gorham said there’s “no question” it does feel like violent crime is increasing.
“We’re hearing it from our community,” he said.
However, he said statistics show Portland’s violent crime rate is down 5 percent, although it doesn’t feel that way when there are highly publicized events or clusters of crimes.
“For us, it’s a matter of being present,” Gorham said. “We have officers on foot patrol in different areas of the city. The idea is being visible, so our community members see us and understand we are there to provide a service and keep them safe.”
Gorham dismissed reports that have been appearing on social media sites like Facebook or NextDoor, where city residents have claimed they called 911 for service but no officers responded.
“When somebody calls 911, we go,” he said.
Gorham said complaints about response are investigated to see if there was an error in the dispatch system, if the caller made a mistake, or some other problem.
“We do a deep dive into what happened, why is this person feeling (they) called and we didn’t respond,” he said. “You won’t call 911 and be told we’re not available.”
Gorham said misinformation on social media has become a significant challenge for the police.
As an example, he cited the case of a person who was photographed in the West End neighborhood where women had been attacked, and his photo was distributed on NextDoor as if he was guilty.
The man was found to not be connected to those crimes.
“That’s a scary place to be,” Gorham said.
Police use of force
While saying he couldn’t go into specifics of the actual events, Gorham said he agrees it does feel like there are more instances of police in Portland and around Maine using their firearms.
In Portland, a man near the Preble Street Resource Center was shot by police. While he didn’t die, he later said he was trying to have the police kill him. In Falmouth recently, police shot and killed a man, the first such instance of deadly force by that town’s department.
But he also pointed out there has been a general increase in guns being used in the city, and not by police. In 2021, he said there were 18 cases of people using firearms, and two resulted in injury.
“Even though violent crime is down,” he said, “we do have an increase in shootings.”
Despite Gorham’s reluctance to talk about Portland’s police-involved shootings, around the state the number of police officers using their firearms has increased.
Brendan McQuade, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and an advocate for police reform, said while Maine’s number of police-involved shootings is relatively low, the state has the highest rate in New England per 1 million residents in the last five years.
“Numbers can be deceiving, and if you look at any measure of societal fact, there are year-to-year fluctuations,” McQuade said.
He said the numbers in Maine fit a national trend, and shows police violence is a major problem.
He said there has been a national push for police reforms since the Obama administration, but he is skeptical that those reforms resulted in reduced events in urban areas.
“There’s been a small decrease in police-involved shootings in urban areas, but that’s offset by an increase in rural areas (nationally),” McQuade said. “You have to be cautious when attributing social phenomena to a clear-cut cause. The first rule of science is correlation is not causation.”
McQuade said a part of that involves mental health. He said statistics show between a quarter and a half of people killed by police have a mental illness. Additionally, he said Maine is one of the states hit hardest by the opioid crisis, and substance use issues play a role, too.
“If you have a severe mental illness, there’s a good chance you’ll slip through the cracks,” McQuade said. “That leaves you open to be in a position where you’re likely to be an object of police concern.”
McQuade said addressing police violence is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. But he said the first step in getting serious about this is addressing people’s basic needs, such as housing, health care, mental health care, and livelihood.
“To me, the answer to police violence, to social problems, is meeting people’s needs and not just cleaning up the messes created after the fact that are caused by people’s needs who aren’t met, and who are in crisis,” McQuade said.
He believes police budgets should be reduced by 50 percent to 80 percent, to have police only focus on solving crimes, with other funds redistributed to address mental health needs.
Gorham said the Portland department is “incredibly proud” of its behavioral health unit, but they’ve been “terrible advocates” in promoting the work.
The city has partnered with local agencies like the Opportunity Alliance since the early 2000s and has become one of 16 national learning sites for other departments. The department now has a full-time behavioral health co-responder and has added a substance abuse liaison.
“Increasing the size of our behavioral health unit is a goal,” Gorham said.
A need for cooperation
When asked about the public’s fear of being stopped by police – especially people of color or members of disenfranchised communities – Gorham said it’s a natural feeling to get nervous when you see the blue lights. Even with 20 years on the job, he said, he still gets nervous when he sees the flashing lights and thinks “what did I do wrong?”
But, he said, there also needs to be understanding that, especially at night, an officer is just doing a job and cooperation makes that job easier.
“It’s an understanding that the officer has a job to do, and they want to do it,” Gorham said. “We certainly want our community members to feel safe when an officer approaches their car.”
Gorham, who has spent his entire career in Portland, rising to the rank of assistant chief, said he hadn’t decided whether he wants to be considered for the permanent job of police chief.
“I love the Portland Police Department,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of the work we do. Everybody wants to serve this community.”
City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said selection of a new chief falls to the city manager, with confirmation by the City Council.
Complicating that process, however, is that Clark departed the same day as former City Manager Jon Jennings, so both the city manager and police chief are serving on an interim basis. Interim City Manager Danielle West was previously the city’s top lawyer.
The City Council’s work of finding the next permanent manager is expected to take several months and will be further complicated by the work of the Charter Commission. Most commissioners campaigned on the desire to dramatically reduce the power of the manager in favor of a more executive mayor, creating uncertainty about the city manager’s job that some councilors said could limit the pool of applicants they receive.
“It’s too early to know if (West) will seek to do a search for a new chief or wait for a permanent manager to do that work,” Grondin said.
Gorham said the city’s form of police oversight, the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, has a very narrow focus: To make sure investigations into complaints were thorough, timely, objective, and fair.
While there have been claims from some people, including current and past members of the PCRS and members of the Charter Commission, that the system needs to be overhauled, Gorham said he isn’t prepared to discuss what system of oversight is the best fit for Portland.
However, he said the majority of complaints against police are mostly about officers being rude.
“Complaints compared to calls for service are not high,” Gorham said.