PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- For the past three years, members of the community, civil rights groups and law enforcement officials have been working together to find ways to combat the problem of racial and bias-based profiling in Maine.
"Bias-based profiling is the illegal practice of discriminating against somebody based solely on their race, ethnicity, nationality or religion," explained Rachel Talbot Ross, director of the Maine NAACP.
"It does happen, and we need to stop it,"she added. "Everyone has the right to not be stopped, searched or questioned solely based on their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or nationality."
She says it has been difficult to gather statistics on how frequently bias-based profiling occurs, but she says there is anecdotal information that it is happening here in Maine.
"Unless we have the communication and education about the American justice system, there is lots and lots of misperceptions that go on out there," stated Jack McDevitt, Director of Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice and a national expert on the subject of bias-based profiling.
He says Maine's lack of diversity can lead to bias-based profiling, or at least the perception that people are being targeted in communities because they are different.
"When people look out of place, when somebody is in a place it is unusual, then that is one of the things that increases suspicion about that person," he explained. "And whether it is a white person who is driving in an African American neighborhood late at night, or whether it is an African American in a white neighborhood, that raises police suspicion."
"So in Maine, one of the problems is, since you don't have that much diversity, you end up with people who are driving through communities legitimately, but it raises suspicion because they are out of place."
"Our Constitution provides wonderful protections for people, and the more education we can do about that, the better it is," said Maine Attorney General William Schneider. "Educating law enforcement about what people's perceptions were, and educating people, the citizens, about what law enforcement procedures are, and making sure that bias isn't part of that."
"It is important that we pay attention to it," added John Morris, Commission of Maine's Department of Public Safety. "The communities want us to take a look at it, and we are doing what we should do."
Commissioner Morris says the advisory committee's work has lead the Maine Chiefs of Police to adopt a policy on bias-based profiling. In addition, he says every police officer in Maine will be required to take a course on the subject beginning next year.
He said the committee has helped members of the law enforcement community understand the concerns of citizens, and at the same time, has provided a valuable opportunity for officers to explain police protocols and procedures that they are required to do regardless of who they are interacting with.
Rachel Talbot Ross says the committee's work is not finished, and hopes that it will lead to legislation that will help bring an end to bias-based profiling.
She says the conversation is an important part of the process to make sure the activity stops, but reminds people who feel they have been the victim of bias-based profiling to take action.
"Every law enforcement agency in the state has a complaint process, and we are here today to make sure that the public knows that," she explained. "You have a right to grieve if you believe you have been stopped illegally or been targeted by bias-based profiling."