BAR HARBOR — Activists inspired by the national movement for racial justice and changes to police practices are seeking some specific changes in local law enforcement; police say they look forward to “interactive dialogue…as we learn by working together.”
On Monday, at a rally, organized by a group now called the MDI Racial Justice Collective, postponed from Sunday due to weather, leaders began gathering signatures on a statement and petition on “Policing on Mount Desert Island.”
“MDI towns are small and many residents may have familiar and friendly relationships with individual law enforcement officers,” the petition states. “People may experience individual officers to be anti–racist in philosophy and/or action. That is laudable. Nonetheless, systemic racism is prevalent at all levels of the criminal justice system.
“Individual actions do not negate the need to address the racism that is built into the criminal justice system and all of our social systems: economic, political and educational. Fundamentally, dismantling racism is not primarily about shifting individual biased attitudes or behaviors but about transforming the systems that define our lives.”
The petition seeks an island–wide anti-racism in policing task force, increased anti-bias training and ordinances prohibiting police from asking about a person’s immigration status.
“I embrace the concept. I think that is who we are as a community and should continue to be,” Jim Willis, police chief of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, said at the time. But at the same time, he said, “We are all sworn to uphold federal, state and local laws. That won’t change.”
At the march following the rally, which has been held almost every week for more than a month with a police escort, some motorists reported hearing a slur against police in the chants.
“We were saying, ‘No justice, No peace. Defund the police,’” a statement on the group’s Facebook page Tuesday said. “We understand the possible confusion surrounding what was heard, but (we) want to reiterate: Our aim is not to incite hate or violence.”
On Tuesday, the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Police departments hosted a webinar with several officers explaining the departments’ current policies, training and programs. The forum was proposed by Willis as a step in ongoing “strategic planning to assist with the future planning for integrating the agencies to a unified agency providing services to both communities.”
Ahead of the forum, town officials conducted an online survey on the POLCO platform to gauge topics of interest. In the petition, the activists noted that the survey did not ask the race of respondents, “so there is no way to use this survey to determine if people of different races experience policing differently.”
“We acknowledge that there are multiple forms of bias present in our communities and firmly believe there is no place for racism and police brutality in our community,” Willis told the group at the webinar. “We want our community to know that we are committed to remaining transparent as we work together with members of our communities toward understanding equity and eliminating racism and bias from our culture, policies, procedures and education.
“We want to affirm our willingness to be open to the conversations and processes our communities will be engaging in moving forward,” he continued. “We understand that, moving forward, there is more community–based interactive dialogue needed and there will more forums to participate in as we learn by working together.”
He noted that many of the policies under discussion in the national movement are the same in the two departments and in all the other law enforcement agencies in Maine. One reason for that is that it’s common for agencies, including the State Police, Marine Patrol, National Park and others, to assist each other in responding to serious incidents; “we have common practices and procedures to facilitate all those relationships,” he said.
During the forum, officers discussed the School Resource Officer program, Good Morning program to check on elderly residents, reporting and statistics, de–escalation, use of force, protective custody, cameras and ongoing training.
Residents asked if it’s possible to add information about the race or ethnicity of people stopped in traffic stops or in use of force reports; the information is not currently collected. Willis offered to consult with other agencies in the state that do collect that information to learn how it could be implemented here.
Officer Chris Dickens, who worked in mental health prior to becoming a police officer and participated with the MDI Racial Equity Working Group in a training last year led by the Racial Equity Institute, discussed the goals of the national “defund the police” movement. It’s about shifting resources to programs that address the roots of “criminal behavior and social issues within the community,” he said.
Sgt. Chris Wharff said officers are trained to always ask themselves, “What’s going to benefit this person and the community most?”