Rules on how Maine police departments will monitor the demographics of motorists they stop are still unfinished nearly six months after a law said they should be.
The solution? Rely on a change in the law to simply push off the deadline.
The Attorney General's office was tasked with preparing the rules to distribute to police departments and other law enforcement agencies on how demographic information of people who are subject to traffic stops are to be recorded and monitored by police officers.
This law practice has filed three public records requests to the office of the Attorney General (AG) Aaron Frey under the state’s Freedom of Access Act requesting the rules expecting them to be ready. However, no documents have been provided on each occasion.
Initially, the AG’s office said the rules had yet to be “promulgated” - or distributed to law enforcement. In other words, the Attorney General’s office was either not complying with public records law by releasing these rules, or had not complied with a statute that the rules be ready.
In emails at the end of February when the first request was made, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Bolton, the office’s public access officer that deals with public records requests, confirmed that the rules have still not been adopted, or finalized. In a second request at the end of March, the response was the same - no document was responsive to the request.
The third, made on May 23, 2023, met the same response again that same day. That’s in spite of the statute requiring them to be ready, or adopted, at the beginning of January.
Instead, a bill is working its way through the legislature to simply put that deadline off for a year. It is currently with the Judiciary Committee. However, the current law requiring that the rules should have been ready in January is still in effect and the AG's office is still not in compliance. Aside from moving the deadlines, the bill requires that police departments have a civil rights officer. It also adds a rather meaningless paragraph that prohibits profiling by police officers without any mechanism to enforce that prohibition. Any law without a consequence for a violation really has no legal effect.
There have been studies that illustrate how people of color are disproportionately impacted by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
In Maine specifically, several attempts to end ‘pretext stops’ - where the reason for a stop can be a hunch but hidden behind a minor violation such as a turn signal violation or a brake light being out - have failed in the legislature. The monitoring is to quantify if bias is present for such stops.Already specific research shows just that. In South Portland, the police department recently asked an academic from Northeastern University to conduct a study of traffic stops there. The resulting report showed evidence of racial and ethnic disparities with non-white motorists three to four times more likely to be stopped.
Delays in the finalizing and release of the rules on how traffic stops will be monitored also delays how police departments can prepare to actually do it - and with a further delay will put off an assessment with actual facts and data to assess if the problem exists to know what needs addressing.