SOUTH PORTLAND (WGME) – A new report has revealed two disparities in arrests made by the South Portland Police Department.
Black people and those experiencing homelessness are being arrested at higher rates.
This report was part of a joint effort by the cities of Portland and South Portland to better understand if these types of differences in arrests and traffic citations exist and ways law enforcement could make any policy changes or add training to reduce the disparities.
The 49-page report comes from researchers at the University of Southern Maine and Northeastern University.
The study looked at arrest and traffic stop data from 2018 to 2020.
It found that Black or African American people accounted for 15 percent of all arrests among Maine residents in South Portland.
However, that group is just 3.5 percent of the population of South Portland.
That means they were arrested at an annual rate nearly five times higher than white residents.
"It's difficult for us to imagine that we have a police department or police officers that are going out of the way. I don't believe that that's the case," said South Portland Police Chief Dan Ahern.
Researchers say there could be many factors that led to this. The study did not find evidence of biased-based policing, but the department's chief says this is a concerning stat.
“I'd hate to think that there are families out there, young men that believe that they are being targeted just because the color of their skin,” South Portland Police Chief Dan Ahern said. “I don't believe that's the case.”
The ACLU of Maine says the disparities highlighted by the report are something that advocates have long argued. Namely, black people and other people of color are interacting with police at a disproportionate rate.
"The numbers speak for themselves. But litigating the uprightness or purity of police officers really won't bring us closer to a solution. I think what is more important is to focus on the response to this kind of data," said ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede.
That includes finding alternatives to a law enforcement response for certain calls.
"Police should not be the first responders to crisis situations," said ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede. "Our society should invest in other responders to crisis situations."
They argue that could help reduce these disparities.
"We need to expand the menu of options that are available to people experiencing homelessness and other members of the public who might think to first resort to the police. Other options need to be as readily or more readily available than just calling a police officer," Kebede said.
The report also found that people who were homeless represented more than 10 percent of all South Portland PD arrests.
They were more likely to be arrested multiple times during the research time period.
The South Portland Police Department says that it has behavioral health liaisons. And it’s working with an organization to provide crisis services.
But, the department understands there’s room for improvement.
Chief Ahern says they need to take a closer look at the data and figure out where they can improve.
"We asked for this study to be done. And it's an opportunity for us to really look at our practices and our policies, our training, how can we be better?" Ahern said.