News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Told to Defund Police, Portland Adds Three “Civilians” to the Force

Former Sinclair TV reporter is cops’ new “media liaison”

by | Apr 19, 2021

David Singer during his stint with a Sinclair Broadcasting TV station in Maine.

 

The demand could not have been more clear. “Defund Police,” BLM Portland declared last June, when the streets of Maine’s largest city were filled with protesters nightly. “Move jail, prison, and police funds to schools, jobs, and social services.” That was literally demand No. 1.

Earlier this year, the City of Portland responded — by adding three new salaried positions to the force.

None of them, however, will be carrying a gun, and two are doing the kinds of social-service work that critics of the cops say such civilian “liaisons” should be doing, instead of armed officers.    

The third new hire is David Singer, the department’s first Media and Community Relations Liaison. Singer most recently worked as a TV news reporter and anchor for WGME, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the media conglomerate notorious for its arch-conservative political views. (Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith has a seaside estate in Cape Elizabeth; in recent years, he’s been battling his neighbors in court over a minor property-line dispute.)

We asked Singer how these new hires, himself included, align with activists’ demand to decrease the size of the force and shift money to social needs. We also got his thoughts on his former employer, probed the limits of the department’s newfound commitment to “transparency,” and touched on other subjects during a lengthy interview last week, excerpted as follows.    

Mainer: Is your position a new one in the department — does it represent an increase in spending on personnel?

Singer: It is a new position. I was hired along with two other additional new positions, meaning two new citizen positions. … The other two positions are the Alternative Response Liaison and the substance abuse response liaison [it’s actually the Substance Use Disorder Liaison].

The substance abuse response liaison is manned by Bill Burns, who used to work with Preble Street. And he’s taking his expertise directly to PD, in terms of his interactions with civilians who need support in the field. 

Andrea Taatjes is the Alternative Response Liaison. Her’s is kind of a hybrid position, where she would specialize in both behavioral health, those going through crisis, as well as substance use. 

These three positions were a collective push in our efforts for increased transparency, as well as to aid the department in outreach for civilian co-responders. This department is one of ten in the nation where we model the co-responder crisis-response model, where almost all calls dealing with behavioral health, as relayed by dispatchers, will have either civilians respond first or concurrently with an officer. Seeing this dynamic play out, and in narratives, is immensely helpful. It’s the ying and yang.

I did a video profile, actually — you can check it on our YouTube or Facebook — about a seven-minute profile with Missy [Esty] and Officer Chris Coyne. Missy is one of the Opportunity Alliance folks working with PD through a grant. [At the scene of behavioral health–related calls] she’s there, doesn’t have a badge, so folks don’t inherently assume they’re in trouble. The officer is there to protect her and discourage any further escalation. If her de-escalation efforts don’t work, or someone is in danger, then he’s there to help in that respect.

My position is to help promote and document these kinds of interactions, as well as an effort for greater transparency as a whole. We announced about a month ago our partnership with USM, UNE and their respective institutes, along with South Portland police, to look at our data for potential biases in policing. What is in our standard operating procedures that could be changed? What’s in there that indicates that there may be biases in how implicit or unconscious biases affect our policing methods? We don’t know yet. That’s the question. We’re looking at the numbers.

So yeah, these three positions were created to enhance transparency. And to encourage and document these civilian/officer/co-responder interactions. I was naive to it — I really was. These calls don’t end up in the news, because they’re behavioral-health, substance-abuse or homeless issues. Instead of treating everything as inherently a criminal interaction, we have criminal trespass orders that are not a legal, binding document in terms of punitive measures. It just gives a record of how transients, or folks on the streets, how they have been observed and how to refer them to services.

 

Given that these are new positions, and an increase in spending, do you think that’s a rebuke of protestors’ demands to defund the police?

I will note that when I came on board here, talking with the chief, one of the early demands from the protestors was “8 Can’t Wait” [a set of demands for procedural reforms]. That advocacy group either halted or joined ‘defund the police.’ They thought abolition, or dismantling, would be more effective than the policies or protocols being ironed out.

As far as an issue of funding, it’s acknowledging that Portland needs a police department — crime doesn’t go away. It’s a tourist town and there are various idiosyncrasies that come with being a tourist destination. It really was created within a budgetary measure to make these systems … more effective in dealing with the mental-health crisis, which is an overwhelming amount of these calls.

[I’m] just documenting and promoting that [work]. Whereas the previous [Public Information Officer], Lieutenant [Robert] Martin, would treat things on a strictly need-to-know basis, in terms of what can we get out to the public — to reassure [the public] that it’s not nefarious, or not hidden. It’s … a response to those protestor demands, but it’s making practical, pragmatic changes, and not dismantling or defunding, in terms of training or these programs. Because they are needed.

It’s an education effort, and it’s part of my job to reach out to critics, skeptics. The chief did an amazing job last year, talking to protestors and organizers almost every day and documenting those interactions. [My work is] building a genuine rapport — not just for solidarity sake, but to try and respond to these demands.

It’s my belief that these three positions were created, if not solely in response to the protests, as part of an ongoing conversation about how to make this department work as part of the 21st century, with all the challenges that we are dealing with.

 

Is Lt. Martin still with the department?

He is, and he helps me. He is an institutional asset. He oversees the detectives and has been the point person most often, and still, for historic and forensic cases that haven’t been resolved yet.

He’s why I say the protests weren’t solely responsible for the creation of these positions. He was lobbying for a citizen liaison for years. … Then enough factors came into the fore that the [police] department and city, as separate entities, saw the value of the position.

Previously, I know sometimes that [Freedom of Information Act requests] wouldn’t be responded to as quickly, or day-of inquiries. This positions allows that to be handled, so reporters can relay that information to their readers, listeners, viewers.

I genuinely believe in the work [Portland police] are doing here, and frankly, I’ve had adversarial relationships, when I was a reporter, with police departments — not in Maine, but in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where their culture was very evident that even talking to reporters is viewed as not beneficial to the department.

It really is a top-down culture here, where being transparent is now the norm. And including demographic data, breakouts that reporters and members of the public would like to know when dealing with inquiries.

 

I noticed that the reporting you did covering the protests last summer was for WGME, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, a company that has a very conservative slant. Do you think people should be concerned about that association, since you were hired to enhance public trust in Portland, a liberal city? 

I’m very aware of the Sinclair brand, and it was very frustrating for me as a reporter there. But actually, quite frankly, I’ve never had more journalistic freedom than I did in Sinclair newsrooms. And let me explain why, because you are probably skeptical of that.

I started out in radio, then I went to family-owned newspaper groups around Pittsburgh. Then I got into TV. I was naïve to TV. I was just going to do the big three major media components. I figured I’d get into teaching and do something with it. So I ended up in a Sinclair station in Steubenville, Ohio, and I had carte blanche on what I was doing, because it was a smaller market, and I did investigative reporting, including critical reporting of the police.

Let me cut to the chase: the problem with Sinclair are their editorials. Their editorials are cribbed right up against reporting that runs contrary to their editorials. [Sinclair commentator and former Trump advisor] Boris Epshteyn was a big name that hung out there. The synchronicity of the reporting that went viral [when presented by] John Oliver — those are editorials, not reporting.

I was never asked to cover something, or cover it a certain way. It was always a collaborative and final editorial decision with the news director in that newsroom. I swear I’ve had more pushback, and killed stories, in radio and newspaper newsrooms than any Sinclair newsroom.

As for [WGME], I was giving voice to the protestors. They were the story. Just by the nature of the protests, police couldn’t comment, they were dealing with a public-safety situation. … So I was just doing my job as a reporter, giving a voice to the protestors.

As for the protests, from the police perspective, I covered them that week in June, where protestors became violent the first two nights. And I saw this culture, even before, but I really did see how Portland police composed and handled themselves in these situations. And that includes me accurately reporting when things turned violent that night, including a rear flank of protestors throwing similar-looking objects at the same time. My camera crew was accosted, we were tackled by a few demonstrators or hangers-on, and who knows if they were in solidarity with what the protestors were demanding?

My camera was stolen, and [activists] said this isn’t what happened, but we have tape to prove that protestors at the rear flank were lobbing things to the front. It was a very fluid situation: what we saw was this, what protestors said they saw was this. … Video would go on to prove that we were accurately reporting what we [aired].

But it was the discipline and response that I saw from the department that night that lent trust to the belief that I would be set up for success, because I would not be walking into a situation where I couldn’t trust this department, or that the department would put me in a position where I wouldn’t be able to speak truthfully about what goes on here. … I did get pepper-balled that night, but it was just being close to contact where violence was erupting. I got to see firsthand the culture of this department in a microcosm of how they responded that night.

 

How do you plan to increase transparency at the department? What areas need more transparency?

Yeah, just explicitly acknowledging the ‘defund the police’ rhetoric. It’s my goal to show that we are empathic to those demands, but it’s not exactly practical to do. And showing the types of programming and service that happen here, in terms of behavioral and crisis response. Not just promoting it as ‘look how great we are,’ but as a general understanding of how it works. That’s going to be an ongoing effort, and my challenge is to do that so it doesn’t come off as pandering or patronizing. 

[Another part of my job] is documenting demographic data here in terms of recruitment, outreach. And that’s still a thing that is being worked out. We have a new recruitment officer coming in. It’s just figuring out how to capture all those elements that would normally be more visible in a corporate or public-facing entity, making Portland PD feel like any other organization you would feel comfortable interacting with.

I think, overall, people are comfortable interacting with PPD. It’s the largest municipal police force in Maine, and … sometimes the size of the organization can dehumanize it. It’s my job to humanize and bring forth why these people work here, and get past stereotypes the public has, and I have. We all have stereotypes we hold in our head, and it’s about knocking down those stereotypes if they exist.

The other element is body-cam footage. That’s me reviewing that. There hasn’t been any specific cases yet where we’ve had to release it, and it will still be our policy not to release [footage] if it puts an investigation at risk. But for me, from a tech standpoint, it was seeing how to blur and redact — which I quickly figured out, using our proprietary system. So if we have to release it, it can be illustrative enough while protecting the privacy of victims and bystanders. That [work] was the thing I had explicitly in mind when applying for the job, but right now it’s taken a back seat, since there aren’t any going-ons that would result in a release of video.

All the officers I talk to, there has been a cultural shift where they are glad they have the camera now. This is anecdotal, but a lot of bystanders now will stop filming police. Like routine traffic stops — I’ve seen at least three or four body-cam videos where the bystander will start filming, for their safety, and the body cam, acknowledging it, is a point of de-escalation in and of itself. It reminds the bystander, ‘Hey, you’re being filmed too,’ and I’ve seen the bystander ask to be stopped being filmed, but the police officer says, ‘No, but you can film me.’ These interactions become a common grounding point — this body cam is a mutual accountability device, and a point of trust. A lot of the officers that were skeptical of it five or six years ago now want it on, and synced to their vehicle, so it accounts for what happens, instead of hearsay.

 

What social media outlets do you plan to use to communicate with the public?

We have been using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Ninety percent of the time, it’s cross-posting the same announcement on each medium or platform, barring some character limits. Instagram — a lot of recruitment efforts go on there. Dispatchers use it, as well, to help corroborate what’s going on in the heat of the moment, or to help inform officers to assess a threat level of what’s happening, or what’s not happening. I’m not innovating on any of these platforms, just using them to get out info when we need it.

 

Any plans to take crime tips from public platforms? Should residents expect that you will answer them directly on social media?

Yes, I have on Facebook. I noticed on Facebook there was an auto-reply when you messaged our page. Now I get in there and answer messages. There have been homeless folks who reach out on other people’s phones, in camps, and I’ll reach out to them and ask if they are OK. Some are going through delusional moments, not really sure where they are, so I’ve kept them engaged until I can refer a service professional, either a social worker or an officer, to go help them. Just being a social-media native, I’ve been monitoring those messages.

Facebook seems to be the catch-all where people do file complaints, but I let them know you can’t [trust] social media, because we don’t know who’s on the other end of the page. Twitter, we don’t get much engagement. It’s mostly Facebook. We don’t have plans to get onto TikTok or anything else right now.

 

In addition to media inquiries, can the public contact you with questions or concerns about police activities, or information about crimes?

The short answer is yes. … I’ve been dealing with heads of neighborhood associations, activists, critics. Before this position [was created] they felt like they were screaming into the void. Now there’s a person in place that make sure their complaints, concerns or requests go to the right person, and I’ll help them find the correct person. It’s just hearing them out and seeing what we can do to solve their problems.

 

Can the average citizen see arrest reports or body-cam footage on request? What information would they need to provide to see the reports?

That I’m not sure of, since all the requests I’ve done have been through media. Typically I would have to confer with our attorney, but sometimes an arrest report is not considered public knowledge. The incident report and narrative may be, but the details aren’t deemed public. That’s a state statute, not a department rule — that you can’t see certain elements of the report, but you can others.

The body-cam footage is along the same lines of the [arrest] reports — if someone wants to see footage that corroborates what is said in a report, then it would have to be deemed appropriate for the public. It’s treated like any other piece of evidence for police records. 

 

Are you going to be conveying negative outcomes in the same way that you will present positive outcomes in the department?

Yes, integrity is at the heart of what I do. And that’s why I was hired. They wanted someone with my value set to acknowledge when things are challenging or when there is a problem. There haven’t been bad instances yet, but it’s inevitable that something challenging will arise. When it’s a matter of public perception or criticism against the policing agency, whether true or not, it’s stepping up to the plate and acknowledging those. That’s why the department hired an outside firm to audit the protests. That’s why we partnered with UNE and USM to audit our data. We want to own up to what we can be doing better. 

I don’t know what comes next in terms of what challenges we face, but we will publicize [our findings] during and throughout those research examinations and investigations. It’s just being forthright. That’s built into my protocol as a media liaison, being forthright to Portland residents.

David Singer can be reached at (724) 207-3148 or dsinger@portlandmaine.gov.

Related Posts

Subscribe

We are supported by advertisers and readers, like you, who value independent local journalism. For the cost of one pint of Maine craft beer each month, you can help us publish more content and keep it free for everyone.