THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Muckrakers

Forty years ago, student journalists uncovered records of police brutality in Providence

by Ella Comberg & Lucas Smolcic Larson

Illustration by Alex Hanesworth

published November 30, 2018


content warning: graphic descriptions of police brutality

 

In 1980, Steve Kohn returned to the offices of the Providence Human Relations Commission, where he was ushered into the office of his boss, executive director Ray Rickman. Rickman had just received a phone call from an unidentified Providence police officer. Its message was clear:

“Tell Kohn he has a pretty face. Ask him if he wants to keep it.”

 

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The eighties was an era of almost-unchecked police impunity in Providence—and Rickman, Kohn, and the Human Relations Commission were taking a lone stand. “The police could do almost anything they wanted to whoever they wanted,” recalled Rickman in an interview with The College Hill Independent—a cabal of “15 or 16 real bad police officers” participated in beatings, racial harassment, and intimidation, facing virtually no consequences. Police violence was normalized, if not outright sanctioned, by the Providence Police Department; then-Chief of Police Angelo Ricci was quoted in the Providence Journal in 1978 saying, “You’re [not] going to stop crime by being nice to people. You have to push people around.”

Rickman arrived in Providence from Detroit in 1978 to fill an appointment at the Human Relations Commission, an independent public agency tasked with fighting discrimination and promoting civil rights in the city. His team took on the police. “We had all kinds of powers never [before] exercised, and we exercised them,” Rickman said, beginning by hiring 23-year-old  Kohn as his personal assistant and sending him to the Police Department for internal hearings on civilian complaints against officers. Kohn, then a master’s student at Brown, played a lawyer-like roll, representing victims of abuse. In effect, this transformed internal police hearings, once only procedural, into trial-like environments. “That had never happened before, where someone sat and aggressively questioned the policeman about what actually happened,” explained Kohn in an interview with the Indy. It was returning from one of these hearings that Kohn learned of the first threat against him.

The pair of advocates was not surprised. “The public knew that there were renegade officers,” said Rickman, “the City Council knew it, everyone knew it.” Lacking was proof: the paper trail. Enter the Rake collective.

 

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In the year after Kohn’s first hearing as an advocate at the Human Relations Commission in 1980, he and two Brown undergraduates, Cheryl Jacobs and Mark Toney—founding members of now-defunct radical Brown student publication the Rake—would uncover hundreds of civilian complaints against Providence police officers. In the process, they would also test the power of Rhode Island’s 1979 government transparency law, the Access to Public Records Act with a case that reached the state’s Supreme Court and affirmed citizens’ right to an open government.

The results of Kohn, Jacobs, and Toney’s investigation were published in a special issue of the Rake, featuring anonymized, first-person accounts of police abuse in a section titled “The Victims Speak” and an article titled “Can the police police themselves?” about the hearing process, through which only seven percent of officers were found guilty of misconduct.

The Rake faded out of existence in the late eighties, just before The College Hill Independent was founded in 1990. As Indy editors, we dove into the history of the Rake and its investigation of the Providence Police Department to uncover and narrate to the work of independent student-journalists decades before us and to understand the history activist-journalism in Providence and at our institution—alongside the ongoing, and hard-fought struggle for an accountable police force for all of Providence’s communities. This is the story of the Rake—a glimpse into the movement for just and nonviolent public institutions in Rhode Island.

 

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The Rake was founded in 1979 by a group of students who had been active opponents of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. As Cheryl Jacobs (now Cheryl Jacobs Ehrlich), one of the founding members, told the Indy, after “three days camping in the marshes” to protest the power plant, “we got back to the campus and they were still building the nuclear power plant, but everyone was very cognizant of the power of direct action...and we said, how can we carry this momentum? Wouldn’t it be cool to have a newspaper? And among that group was Steve Kohn.”

As an undergrad at Boston University, Kohn had led the efforts of another student paper, the bu exposure, to bring attention to Boston University President John Silber’s crackdown on progressive students and professors. “There was a lot of student interest to do an investigatory and muckraking paper,” he remembers. He brought his muckraking message to Brown as a graduate student, where he and others founded the aptly-named Rake.

The minutes from the first meeting of the Rake on November 29, 1979, archived in the John Hay Library, reveal these students weighing the application of their ideals to the tedious work of producing a monthly, investigative paper:

“The Rake is maintaining a couple of internal contradictions which are hurting us. First, our approach is a mix of liberal and radical, we should choose between the two (radical). Can we advocate both writing your congressperson and doing direct action? The second is on our focus as a community paper. Isn’t almost the entire staff Brown-oriented? We can’t be both a Brown and a community paper and be successful. Which will we choose?”

The Rake never took firm stances on these questions, but their politics were definitively leftist. In an undated letter to the paper’s staff, Mark Toney—another active member of the paper—typed in all caps “OUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES MUST BE TO SUBVERT, AGITATE, AND INCITE, FOR THE UNIFIED GOAL OF LONG-TERM DESTABILIZATION OF THE SYSTEM.” He then circled this paragraph, annotating it in pen as “the Main Point.” He signed the document, “yours in the struggle, Mark.”

Despite its somewhat nebulous goal of destabilizing the system and its of-the-time conventions (internal documents for the paper are marked with “Earthdates”), the paper took up both serious direct action and investigative work. According to Jacobs, the former often led to the latter: “within the Rake collective there was a subset of people who were doing things off-campus with the community—with unfair housing, involved with very far-left groups, doing kind of guerrilla theatre....I don’t think [the stories published in the Rake] are something we would have heard about otherwise.” The collective nonetheless maintained its journalistic focus, publishing stories that ranged from a report on Brown’s historical involvement in the Manhattan Project to a feature on “alchemy at the UEL [Brown’s Urban Environmental Laboratory],” published alongside impassioned indictments of CIA-backed violence in Latin America and poems about sexual assault on college campuses. But it was with the police brutality issue that the Rake left an enduring mark on Providence.

 

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Stories of police brutality first arrived at the Rake through Steve Kohn. Kohn saw first-hand evidence of abuse—beatings, hate speech, and coercion—in the citizen police misconduct complaints shared with the Human Relations Commission. The ability for victims to file complaints with the department had been established just several years earlier, when the Coalition of Black Leadership, a Providence-based group formed to respond to police violence against communities of color, sued the City of Providence alleging a “pattern of police brutality on the part of the Providence policemen toward the black population.” The resulting 1973 Consent Decree allowed citizens to file complaints and mandated internal investigations and hearings, which were presided over by a “hearing officer”—a member of the police department—who rendered a verdict for approval or rejection by the Chief of Police (this process stands to this day). The Human Relations Commission had been allowed to participate in these hearings by the decree, but before Rickman, defendants were rarely positioned well to argue their case against the word of a police officer.

Mark Toney, a prolific activist who would go on to found Providence’s Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) after graduating, reflected on the city in the early eighties in an interview with the Indy: “Back at that time, there wasn’t a lot of appetite among city councils or among people in authority to hold the police accountable,” he said. “It just didn't happen.” As Kohn was getting threats for aggressively questioning police officers in internal hearings, Ray Rickman was being forced out of his role as director of the Human Relations Commission by what Kohn called “bipartisan opposition” to those challenging police power. Rickman confirmed this. To take on law enforcement in Providence in 1980 was politically and personally risky—Rickman told the Indy that he received threats from the police, and, on one occasion, was threatened at gunpoint in City Hall by a high-ranking public safety officer. It was only “bravery and ignorance” on the part of Rickman and his team that kept them going.

 

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Kohn told the Indy that he was concerned that there was a major cover-up of the extent of police abuse and that solid evidence of these civil rights abuses was not known to the public. Through his position at the Human Relations Commission, he had access to the civilian complaint files. However, even 38 years after the publication of the exposé, Kohn would not comment on the record as to how the Rake obtained the first-person accounts of police violence that made it into their eventual October 1980 issue.

At Kohn’s suggestion, in the spring of 1980, a group of undergraduate reporters at the Rake—Jacobs and Toney taking the lead—made the decision to launch a broad investigation into the police department. In search of documentation of police abuse, Jacobs and Toney began in City Hall. “We went into the basement...and found this little office full of records,” Jacobs told the Indy. “We wave this document at [the clerk] and are like, ‘we can see these. The government says we can see these.’” To the pair’s surprise, the clerk led them back into the filing room where they began to rifle through documents. Jacobs remembered their reaction as no less than elated: “this is it, the motherlode, this is what we’ve been looking for, my god! And we’re trying to act really casual, and we start shoving things into the copier as fast as we can, just copy it, copy it. We’re just stuffing these pages into our backpacks as fast as they come out.”

Unbeknownst to the reporters, the clerk had called a supervisor. “She makes the phone call, and we notice her whole demeanor changes. Somebody’s just ripping her out from somewhere else. And she gets agitated. She says, ‘okay you can’t be doing this. You’re not allowed to copy these.’”

Though Toney and Jacobs were legally entitled to the records under Rhode Island’s open government law, the clerk abruptly ordered them to leave. “Our backpacks are full. We walk out as fast as we can without running with the copies we’d gotten, which are like gold. And we jumped on the city bus to go back to the hill,” recalled Jacobs. “I was terrified...I’m like squinshing myself down in the bus, like, ‘are there any state troopers following us?’”

 

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But a stack of civilian complaints—some from the Human Relations Commission and others from the visit to City Hall—were not enough. Wanting to prove that, even with the internal complaint process, officers were not held accountable for their actions, Jacobs and Toney turned to Rhode Island’s government transparency law, the 1979 Access to Public Records Act—the state’s version of the federal Freedom of Information Act, which gives citizens the right to request any documents created by public agencies. Kohn, beyond his work at the Human Relations Commission, had a keen interest in using these laws to gather government documents. Toney, remembers his friend Kohn’s ability to access previously classified information: “He had boxes and boxes...Eugene V. Debbs prison files. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn prison files. Like absolute originals. And it was like un-fucking-believable to see Big Bill Haywood—all these [documents]!”

Over the summer that followed, Jacobs and Toney sent a series of letters to the police department (addressed to Chief of Police Angelo Ricci) requesting records of these hearings, citing the Access to Public Records Act. The reports would show how frequently the complaint process resulted in a “guilty” verdict—and, more broadly, if the system was working to address abuse. “We definitely expected a response,” Jacobs told the Indy. “These are public records. These people are public servants.” However, Toney and Jacobs did not receive responses to any of their requests for records within the 10 business days, which “shall be deemed to be a denial,” according to the statute. Following the law, the reporters then appealed this denial to Commissioner of Public Safety Sanford Gorodetsky. They received no response.

 

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With unreturned requests to Gorodetsky and Ricci for officer hearing reports, Toney, Jacobs, and Kohn (writing under the pseudonym Kevin Stone because of the threats against him and his role at the Human Relations Commission) published “The Problem of Police Abuse in Providence”—the October, 1980 issue of the Rake, populated with narratives pulled from civilian complaints and interviews with victims, police officers, and city officials.

Some of the complaints recount forced confessions: one man brought to the police station requested that his attorney be called. Then, he said, “the captain informed me that ‘this was not kiddy land.’ He then gave the detective a billy club and ordered: ‘make sure you get a statement from him, or use this’ [pointing to the billy club]. After the captain left the room, the detective beat me with the club when I persisted to ask for an attorney. Finally, after getting hit several times in the right knee and the nose, I reluctantly signed a statement.”

Other victims quoted retell stories of verbal abuse: a woman arrested after an illegal search was made on her home was driven to the police station. “Officer X rode with her to the station [and] in the car made remarks about ‘you people should learn not to act like a bunch of animals...It’s about time you learned that when we speak, our work is law.’”

The sum total of the investigation was a dismal portrait of almost entirely unchecked police power on the streets, in police vehicles, and at local precincts. “The story,” said Jacobs,  “was that guys get picked up in the middle of the night, they get the shit beat out of them, and then basically thrown out in an alley to be charged.” But the Rake collective’s investigation wasn’t over. In the three years that followed the article’s publication, the Rake would take the Providence Police Department to court in search of the hearing officer reports—evidence that the police were rarely prosecuted for the abuse the Rake documented.

 

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Having been rebuffed by Colonel Ricci and then Commissioner Gorodetsky, Jacobs, Toney, and Kohn approached the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Steve Brown, Director of the RI ACLU, assigned R. Kelly Sheridan to the case. After the ACLU helped the students draft a second round of (unsuccessful) letters requesting the officer hearing reports, Sheridan filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island’s Superior Court. Sheridan, in an interview with the Indy, remembers “some pressure to get a good outcome,” a feat that would require “the court to embrace and endorse the legislative objectives and principles” of the newly-passed—and untested—Access to Public Records Act. In that case, Sheridan maintained that the files were public records that necessitated release under the act (which assumes all records are public unless an agency claims a specific exemption). In its defense, the Providence Police Department argued that the hearing reports were private “personnel records,” and therefore sensitive information exempt from release.

On August 3, 1981, Judge Cresto of the Superior Court of Rhode Island ruled in the Rake’s favor, writing that “to withhold this information defeats the very purpose whereby the Consent Decree was entered and for which the access to public record statute was designed.” Judge Cresto ordered Commissioner Gorodetsky to “make available to the plaintiffs each and every Providence Police Department Hearing Officer’s report on civilian complaints.” Sheridan says the “critical decision that Mark and Steve and Cheryl made at the time” to consent to receiving hearing reports with the officers’ names redacted “was key to our success” because without identifying information, the City’s claims that the reports were “personnel records” no longer held up.

The court order, however, did not stop the Providence Police Department, which continued to withhold the documents in question. As the Rake filed a contempt of court charge, Rake v. Gorodetsky made its way to the State Supreme Court, where, on December 3, 1982, Judge Florence Kerins Murray ruled once again in the Rake’s favor.

After a monumental win for the Rake, the Rhode Island ACLU, and advocates of police accountability, the staff of the Rake had reached an impasse: they still had to raise the funds to pay for the document reproduction fees (roughly $600). A copy of the “Rake Log,” written by staffers immediately following the Supreme Court decision, reads, “Currently, the decision rests with the RAKE staff.” Option A, according to the document, was to “raise the necessary funds through reggae/new wave dance at Sayles [a Brown building]” or “through the sale of leftist junk: pins, buttons, bumperstickers, etc.” Ultimately, the Rake obtained the records (recollections are hazy about how exactly the collective raised the $600), but for at least for a moment, the Rake’s ability to obtain the documents they’d worked three years for rested in the staff’s ability to pull off a reggae concert.

 

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The Rhode Island Supreme Court’s final decision in the Rake’s favor called the suit the state’s “first opportunity to examine” the newly-minted state public records law. The case set important precedent for citizens’ and journalists’ right to access public information, absent strong reasons for secrecy.

The questions debated in Rake v. Gorodetsky are still the subject of litigation around police transparency. Today, said Sheridan, “there’s not this broad-based opposition or resistance to transparency.” But selective noncompliance still exists. Just last year, Sheridan and the ACLU sued the Pawtucket Police Department on behalf of the Rhode Island Accountability Project for failing to release reports of alleged police officer misconduct generated by its own internal review process, in a case strikingly similar to the Rake’s. Unlike civilian-generated complaints, the City of Pawtucket argues complaints generated internally (which include anonymous tips from outside the department) should be exempt. Sheridan called it a “distinction without a difference.”

Rickman, who has held a variety of political and advocacy positions in Rhode Island, said of the Providence police in the eighties and today, “you cannot compare the two police departments,” adding “there are no famous rogue cops,” unlike in the eighties when Rickman—and police officers on the force—could list the most violent officers by name. Rickman remembers them to this day.

This month a WPRI investigation revealed a rising number of disciplinary actions since 2003, which Providence Chief Col. Hugh Clements, quoted in the article, attributed to “high standards.” Even so, of the 679 citizen complaints filed since 2006, just 11.5 percent resulted in some form of discipline, according to public records used in the investigation—the same type of documents won by the Rake’s suit. The Rake’s investigation in 1980 found this rate to be 7 percent. Complaint proceedings are still handled internally—and the continued fight for police accountability has focused on the absence of meaningful civilian review of police misconduct.

In 2002, community activists (many with DARE) building on the legacy of the Coalition for Black Leadership’s 1973 Consent Decree, succeeded in lobbying the City Council to establish the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) to provide civilian oversight of the police. But after a strong start (weathering a lawsuit from the local Fraternal Order of Police), the PERA board was inactive for years—City Councilwoman and DARE activist Mary Kay Harris, who sat on the original board said in a public meeting this June, “politically [PERA] was supposed to fail,” defunded by the city and marred by changing membership. But PERA was reinstated by the April 2017 passage of the Community Safety Act, fought for by a coalition of local organizations concerned about police harassment of people of color in Providence. In the face of these imposed measures of law enforcement accountability, the Fraternal Order of Police has raised vocal opposition, and implementation of the Community Safety Act (rebranded the Providence Community-Police Relations Act) has met resistance.

 

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When we asked Mark Toney, who now works as a utility justice advocate in San Francisco, if he had any advice for us, editors of the Indy, he said, “There is value to history and people knowing the history of struggle." Forty years after the Rake’s police brutality investigation and its Supreme Court win, we set out to assemble the pieces of this story—archived memos, scribbled notes, and decades-old recollections—because we hope this picture of the past can serve as a reminder that the the work student journalists do can be impactful in the months and years after the day an article is printed. We recognize, as the staff of the Rake did, that our paper exists in tension, caught between the ideals of an independent, journalistic pathway to social justice and the bounds of a fundamentally conservative and powerful institution-upon-a-hill. The students of the Rake—as a collective whose direct action was the bedrock of their journalism—leveraged their position as ‘agitators’ to contribute to what still is an ongoing struggle against the violence and racism embedded in Rhode Island’s policing institutions. The Rake began as a direct action collective protesting the Seabrook power plant and ended as one, too, pushing government transparency and police accountability alongside other activists and advocates in their city.

 

Special thanks to Raymond Butti and the staff of the John Hay Special Collections Library, as well as the Rhode Island Historical Society for helping us unearth the archived documents that made this story possible.

 

LUCAS SMOLCIC LARSON B’19 & ELLA COMBERG B’20 want to keep their pretty faces.