Maine Lawmakers Discuss Criminal Justice Reform During Rare Off-Session Hearing

Jun 25, 2020

Spurred by the death of George Floyd and nationwide demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality, Maine lawmakers Wednesday held a rare off-session hearing to plot reforms to the state's criminal justice system.

The hearing touched a wide range of policy areas that other states are also attempting to overhaul, including police use of force and racial bias. But those changes have been difficult to implement before, and it is unclear if the current Legislature will return in time to try again.

Wednesday's joint hearing by the Legislature's Judiciary and Criminal Justice Committees was dominated by presentations of reports — some old, some new.

But one statistic provided by Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey seemed to encapsulate the problem that has repeatedly dogged efforts to make changes to the state's criminal justice system: since 1993, Frey's office has received only one complaint of racial profiling by Maine police.

That one complaint in 27 years can be interpreted in different ways, depending on one person's point of view.

Toward the end of the meeting, Maine state Rep. Craig Hickman, a Democrat from Winthrop and a Black man, provided his: "People are not just marching in the streets because of police killings. People are also marching in the streets because they don't believe that law enforcement officers will ever be held accountable for their abuses of power."

Hickman then explained how his experiences with racial profiling made him reluctant to report it or even talk about it. There was a fear that nothing would be done, as well as fear of retribution.

"It's going to be hard to file a complaint in a system where you're not sure if the complaint itself will make you a target of more aggressive policing in the future because your name is attached to the complaint," Hickman said.

Hickman's comments highlighted one of the biggest problems confronting efforts to overhaul policing in Maine — from the recruitment of officers, to use of force tactics and profiling.

In addition to cultural, racial and institutional barriers, it is hard to gauge how Maine's policing system treats people of color. Most Maine police departments keep just rudimentary statistics about the race of people they arrest. Racial profiling data of traffic stops doesn't exist at all.

"I do believe data is power. I think it is important. It's also important that we collect it the right way," says Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck.

Sauschuck told lawmakers Wednesday that collecting arrest and profiling data is a key to guiding policy decisions about policing. But law enforcement officials have generally opposed collecting racial profiling data.

Last year, Hickman included a profiling reporting requirement in a bill he proposed. The bill ultimately passed, but the reporting requirement was stripped out at the urging of law enforcement agencies, which asserted that it was too costly, burdensome and unnecessary because racial profiling is rare.

Now Hickman and other lawmakers want law enforcement officers like Sauschuck to support it.

When asked if he would, Sauschuck answered with a qualified 'yes.'

"If we talk to professionals, and they say this is the best way to do that, and this is how we think we can do that effectively without offending everybody we talk to, which would be counterintuitive, then we want to be on board with that. We want to be part of that conversation," he said.

But when such a proposal might be considered is unclear. The coronavirus pandemic prompted the Legislature to adjourn in mid-March, and it is not yet known if lawmakers will return before the next Legislature is elected in November. That means the policing reforms that demonstrators have been clamoring for, may have to wait — once again.

Originally published 5:29 p.m. June 24, 2020