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Portland Racial Equity Committee Issues Recommendations For City Government, Policing

US--The Whiteness Conversation
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
In this June 3, 2020, file photo, demonstrators gather at a rally to protest and demand an end to institutional racism and police brutality, in Portland, Maine.

Portland's racial equity steering committee has submitted its recommendations to the city council, and they call for reforms in city government and policing. The committee was formed after several protests held in the wake of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis last year.

All Things Considered host Robbie Feinberg spoke with Maine Community Foundation Vice President of Community Impact Lelia DeAndrade, who served on the committee, to discuss those recommendations.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Feinberg: So these recommendations, they range from screening new police officers for bias to undergoing a racial equity assessment and moving to a stronger community policing model. In terms of policing, what reforms do you think are most urgent in the city?

DeAndrade: The first charge that the city council gave us is the one that really is the most important, which is to look at the ever-expanding role of police officers. The major recommendation is that for noncriminal emergency calls, so calls related to people having mental health issues or substance use issues, for an alternative model of response. And we picked up the CAHOOTS model where you have trained social service providers, people who know how to respond to those kinds of crises going out. And of course, if there's a bigger problem that requires some kind of police support, then the police would go. I doubt that most people become police officers because they want to take care of a person who is drunk on the street. And so we recommend developing an alternative model so the police can focus on their expertise, and we can get people out there who really understand mental health crises and other kinds of crises.

The committee also recommends the city form three new departments. There's a department of racial equity, a permanent board on racial equity and a racial equity task force. What do you think these departments would accomplish that isn't being addressed now?

The permanent board would be a separate board, sort of like what we're doing, the steering committee, but it would be permanent, it would be outside the city, it would be volunteer led, and that would be just a body that would be looking at the process and continuing the work that we started. The charges that the city gave us were huge, and so that board would be a permanent body to help the city continue on this path to addressing racial equity. The task force would be looking specifically at internal processes, and then the office would be the staff to make sure that all of this work is coordinated with the various branches of the city and in conjunction with the board. We felt strongly that you need permanent staff to help continue this work. Again, racial equity is not a one-stop shop, you don't do a workshop once a year, and you're done. It requires constant work.

The committee also recommended that the city improve relationships with people of color through some business support policies, new hiring policies and new housing policies as well. What do you think it will take to make those changes?

I think it's going to take a tremendous amount of will and creativity on the part of the city council. What we know is that public safety, which is our primary focus, is influenced by all sorts of things. And for BIPOC people — black, indigenous and other people of color — in Portland, what we want to make sure is we're looking at all the different ways that they're impacted, that increases their likelihood of not having healthy, safe experiences. So we're looking at how housing impacts people's opportunities to have safe lives, if they're in overcrowded conditions, if they don't have stable housing, if they don't have access to real homes, then their chances of being out on the streets and in situations of distress increase. We kept telling ourselves that this wasn't the time for us to be conservative, that we really want to be ambitious and give them a full range of things to consider, the city council.

So far, what response have you received on these recommendations from both those officials and from the general public?

I've heard from the people that I encounter that they think that it was really ambitious and impressive. I haven't heard from the councilors specifically about their reaction. They seemed really positive. They seemed impressed with the amount of work that we did, but I haven't heard individual comments about it.

One other piece of the report that I wanted to mention, it also recommends that the city meets with the Black Lives Matter-affiliated group Black Power to discuss their demands. What do you want to come from that meeting?

I think that's an important step toward healing. That'll be a huge statement to the city for the councilors to hear from those young people who really put in a tremendous amount of effort and time in calling attention to injustices and then just spend time with us to really understand the dynamics of the report and how they can work with it.

Going forward, what would show you that the city council and other officials are really serious about these recommendations?

The things that I'm most hopeful for, is that they'll establish that permanent board. That'll be symbolic of them recognizing that these are deep, complicated issues that require sustained attention and work. Putting the office in place so that we have staff on the city to make sure that board is not just speaking out into an empty tunnel, that people are hearing it and there's implementation. And then the implementation of that CAHOOTS model so that we can reduce the amount of trauma and the possibility of conflict among people of color and the police in our city. Those are my three big hopes.