By Andy O’Brien

Racial justice advocates testified on Feb. 21 in support of LD 2210, “An Act to Establish a Civil Rights Unit and a Civil Rights Review Panel Within the Office of the Attorney General and Require Ongoing Enhanced File Rights Training for Civil Rights Officers.” The legislation, which was presented by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D – Dist. 118, Portland), would create a civil rights office, or “unit,” within the Office of the Attorney General to receive and investigate hate crimes.

The unit would have the capacity to prosecute civil actions under the Maine Civil Rights Act, which prohibits bias based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation. The unit would also coordinate with other individuals and entities dedicated to advancing civil rights, engage in public education and outreach on civil rights issues, and provide recommendations on how to ensure protections of civil rights. The law would require all law enforcement agencies, municipal governments, and departments of state government to fully cooperate with the unit, make written reports of civil rights violations, and provide information to assist the unit perform its official duties. Finally, LD 2210 would create a 13-member Civil Rights Review Panel charged with examining complaints received by the unit, and use the data collected to make policy recommendations to the Maine Legislature.     

Members of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations testified in support of the bill, arguing that a state-level response is needed to address the recent increase in the number of hate crimes and active hate groups in Maine.

“Currently, the response to hate crimes throughout the state can vary greatly depending on the capacity, training, and presence of local law enforcement,” said Rae Sage, the Policy Coordinator for the Permanent Commission. “Understanding this, the Permanent Commission supports the approach of creating a state-level unit capable of responding to hate-based violations. Establishing a Civil Rights Unit in the Attorney General’s office could help shine a light on the reality of hate activity in Maine, protecting the underserved victims of these crimes and preventing further activity in the future.”

In 2022, Maine reported 81 hate crimes, with the highest number committed on the basis of race, and 23 of these specifically were anti-Black crimes. A 2022 Maine Crime Victimization Report prepared for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services found that 22% of Mainers who reported being a victim of a crime believed that they were targeted based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or identity. More than two-thirds of them stated that they did not report the crime to law enforcement.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a national organization that was founded in 1971 to ensure civil rights are protected in the U.S. SPLC tracks hate groups, and reported nine active hate groups with “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people” in the state of Maine.

In nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that state’s attorney general is currently investigating a November attack against an African American man named Mamadou Dembele as a potential hate crime. Mamadou Dembele is a vice president at Bangor Savings Bank.