THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


A Lawyer on Broad Street

Providence lawyer José Batista takes on police oversight

by Lucas Smolcic Larson

Illustration by Ella Rosenblatt

published March 8, 2019


The mile-long boulevard of Broadway, in Providence, is a den of lawyers. Over 15 private law offices occupy the hodgepodge of Victorian estates and Greek Revival mansions, leftovers from a more ostentatious time on Federal Hill. But, two miles south, across I-95 on Broad Street, there’s only José Batista. At 30, he practices law out of a rented space in a converted three-story home across from a bodega and an elementary school. It’s in the neighborhood where he grew up, surrounded by his clients—the predominantly Latino South Side.

Batista has spent his career in the courtroom, first as a public defender, handling 25 to 35 cases a day for low-income defendants, and now with his own private practice. At least for the moment, though, he’s giving it up. On February 21, the Providence City Council unanimously approved Batista’s appointment as executive director of the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), the city’s recently revived civilian police oversight board. In the council chambers in City Hall, Batista beamed, his bald head gleaming, as applause erupted upon his confirmation. Then, it was over. No more than three minutes had passed since Batista’s name had been announced—a curt beginning to what will be a complicated two years for Batista, overseeing one of the most powerful institutions in the city.

The police department Batista and PERA are tasked with holding accountable has a rocky past. In 1978, then-Providence Chief of Police Angelo Ricci told the Providence Journal, “You’re [not] going to stop crime by being nice to people. You have to push people around.” His comments reflected a period marred by instances abuse of citizens by certain officers: beatings, intimidation, racist slurs.

The Providence Police Department of today is not that of several decades ago (a WPRI investigation from last year found that internal disciplinary actions against officers have risen since 2011, when current Chief Hugh Clements assumed his position, suggesting less tolerance for misconduct). But in 2017, the Associated Press published a report detailing abuses by a “third-shift terror squad” of white officers against Black and Latino residents of the South Side.

The story resonated with the ongoing experiences of youth, people of color, low-income, immigrant and trans people with the police in Providence. In 2012, a coalition of community advocacy organizations formed to draft a police reform ordinance aimed at reducing police violence and prohibiting forms of identity-based profiling. The landmark Providence Community Safety Act (CSA), rebranded the Providence Community-Police Relations Act after last-minute objections by the police union, passed in 2017. But Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, campaign coordinator for the CSA, told the Independent, “We're still hearing that there are police officers who are still harassing folks and still even being violent towards them. We've still gotten those reports [since the passage of the act].” The drafters of the CSA anticipated this, writing an accountability mechanism into the legislation involving the revival of a long-dormant civilian review board: PERA.

So now, at the helm of PERA, José Batista has his work cut out for him. He must create an independent process for community members to submit complaints of police misconduct, preside over investigations into these allegations, and, if warranted, hold courtroom-style hearings with police officers. Many who know Batista say he is the man for the job. But this lawyer stands at a crossroads, of his career and of police oversight in his city.

 

+++

 

Batista is broad-shouldered, and completely clean-shaven except for the traces of a goatee. For his appearances before the City Council during his confirmation process this month (and for our interviews), he wore a starched white button-down and a suit, an outfit that belies his down-to-earth friendliness.

Over rice, beans, and pork at La Gran Parada, a Dominican cafeteria several blocks from his childhood home, where orders are placed in Spanish and the line regularly stretches 50 people deep, Batista told me about his past, stopping only to wave hello to those he recognized coming in for lunch.

Batista was born in 1989, the first of six children. His father, Francisco José Batista, had arrived in Providence ten years earlier from the Dominican Republic as an 18-year-old. Francisco Batista (also known to most as José) began working in a factory, shining and packaging jewelry, and met José’s mother, Sylvia, a Puerto Rican who had come to Providence at age eight. Batista’s father eventually became the owner of a popular club, The International Club, which he eventually renamed “Club 30-30,” in honor of Dominican baseball player Sammy Sosa. Batista remembers Mondays spent helping his dad restock bar shelves and clean up paper cups after raucous weekends at the venue (the club burned down in 2001).

The 90s were a high point for Dominican culture in the US, says Batista. “I like to think of it as like the Harlem Renaissance,” he explained, “but instead of for black people, for Dominicans.” Batista’s father, part of a wave of Dominican migration to New England, was the “unofficial president of the Latino community” in Providence, says Batista, and helped found the Dominican Festival, which packed Broad Street with fancy cars for two weeks of pandemonium.

Also, during the 90s, according to a Human Rights Watch report, certain Providence police officers were committing extreme violence while on the job, beating South Side residents on the same streets Batista played.

Batista remembers the most high-profile case of police violence in his lifetime. Sitting in his sixth grade classroom at Roger Williams Middle School, he and his classmates watched the televised funeral of 29-year-old Sgt. Cornel Young Jr., an off-duty black Providence police officer mistakenly gunned down by two of his white peers on a frigid night in January of 2000. Young Jr. was the son of Providence’s highest ranking black officer and had been eating at an all night diner on Atwells Avenue when he heard a commotion outside. He exited the restaurant with his sidearm drawn (at that time department rules manded off-duty cops carry their weapons) and was shot three times by Officers Carlos Saraiva and Michael Solitro III.

The murder galvanized activists, many from the local nonprofit Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), to push for an independent accountability mechanism for the police. Hundreds demonstrated outside City Hall in the days after the shooting, chanting “stop police brutality” and “they’re the murderers.” The protests developed into a year of sustained advocacy, and organizers finally pushed through an ordinance creating Providence’s first-ever independent civilian review board, PERA, in November of 2002.

Then, Batista was 13, more concerned with his application to Classical High School. He says his parents were strict. “We came to this country for you to go to school,” they told him: to be the first of his family to graduate college. “Classical was a signal,” said Batista, “Classical meant success.” He made it in, and, eventually, landed a scholarship to Bryant University in Smithfield. There, he studied business. During his last year, he flunked out of the accounting program. “Even the people who I had known who had gone to college, never finished,” he said, “And so in my mind I'm like, ‘Oh my God, I'm another statistic.’”

But Batista returned for a fifth year, and, on a whim, took a class on the TV show “The Wire” with Judith McDonnell, a sociology professor that he credits for changing his life. Her classes focused on social inequities: educational disparities and racialized police violence. Batista remembers thinking, “Wait a minute, that sounds like what’s happening in my community!”

McDonnell, still a professor at Bryant, told the Indy that Batista’s upbringing in the South Side informed everything he did. “It’s always traveled with him. No matter where he went. He’s never lost sight of that kind of familial foundation,” she said.

Also at Bryant, Batista joined Lambda Upsilon Lambda, a Latino fraternity. “In my life, there is a B.C. and an A.D.,” he said, “and it coincides with my being bald”—a consequence of the frat’s pledge process. Batista says the frat gave him direction and forced him to pay attention to what was going on in the world. “There was a young, charismatic senator out of Illinois running for president and for the first time the frat made me watch the news,” he said.

Out of this new-found social consciousness came law school applications, and then law school itself, at Roger Williams University in Bristol, where Batista fell in with a crowd of soon-to-be defense lawyers and legal advocates—“people who cared about social justice,” he said.

 

+++

 

While Batista was in high school, PERA, the civilian review board he will soon head, was locked in conflict, with itself and with the police.

PERA, like the approximately 150 similar bodies across the country, is tasked with administering an independent grievance process for citizens. The police department has an internal complaint process, but a 2015 study found that external investigations are 78 percent more likely to sustain misconduct allegations than internal ones. (Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only one in every 12 internal complaints results in disciplinary action.)

Independent review boards are usually borne out of community advocacy for police accountability. But across the country they face opposition from police unions and underfunding from city governments. Many, PERA included, are only able to issue recommendations for disciplinary action to the police, should misconduct allegations be confirmed—making them politically toothless.

Facing these obstacles, the PERA of Batista’s youth may have been doomed from the beginning. “Politically, it was supposed to fail,” said Providence City Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who sat on the original board, at a public meeting last June. Its members, one appointed by each city councilor and the mayor, “were politically put there, deliberately, to destroy PERA.” The 21-person board was clunky and prone to turnover. Its first executive director, Leon Drezek, resigned a year and a half into his tenure and was replaced by his chief investigator, Kevin Dreary. Both men were former members of law enforcement.

In September of 2006, the local Fraternal Order of Police and two officers under investigation by the board sued PERA, asking the courts to declare the agency unconstitutional for violating the state Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. A December 2006 PERA annual report, obtained by public records request, notes that “the cases before PERA are in various stages mostly due to lapses in information from the PPD [Providence Police Department],” which, according to the report, stopped sharing information with PERA while the case was being litigated. Eventually, the Rhode Island Supreme Court sided with the board, but the difficulties had taken their toll. The PERA board chose to dissolve sometime in 2008, and by 2014 the agency’s budget had dipped to one third of its original allocation, according to yearly financial reports released by the city.

For nearly 10 years it lay dormant, until the coalition responsible for the Community Safety Act wrote re-establishing it into their legislation, which passed in 2017. The new board, only nine people this time around, spent its first year learning about the history of its predecessor and hearing presentations from advocates and law enforcement. Then, it interviewed a dozen candidates to fill the executive director role—determining the person who will design and run PERA’s day-to-day operations. At the end of the process, Batista came out on top. “It was unanimous that he nailed it,” said Alison Eichler, chair of the PERA board, in an interview with the Indy.

Batista has also been praised by the advocates who fought to re-establish PERA. “This is the ideal candidate for us,” said Flores-Maldonado of the coalition, “Someone who’s from Providence, who knows the city, grew up and has invested in this area.”

 

+++

 

Preparing for his new job, Batista says the combined 11 pages of the Providence Police-Community Relations Act (PCPRA) and the PERA ordinance are gospel. “I want to memorize those things,” he told me. He wants to stay “in the strong position where I’m doing things that are supported by law.”

That law has drawn the ire of the police union. "The FOP makes no secret in its opposition to the PCPRA," said Providence Fraternal Order of Police President Michael Imondi at a presentation to the PERA board last October, before Batista was hired. "There is no need for additional rules, regulations, or outside oversight,” he added, characterizing community experiences of police harassment or violence as not based in fact, before finally affirming the legal backing of PERA and acknowledging that officers will cooperate with the board. (The Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to a request for comment on this story sent to their Facebook page and a message left at their publicly listed phone number. They have issued no public statements on Batista’s hiring.)

For Batista, maintaining PERA’s legitimacy means focusing only on three charges outlined in the ordinance: community outreach, accepting and investigating complaints, and reviewing police policy.

He officially assumed his post on March 1, but weeks before his schedule was already filled with meetings with PERA board members, city councilors, public safety officials, and activists. “I don’t think it’s rocket science. People just want to be heard.”

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré told the Indy that he and Chief Clements have met with Batista. “We vowed to a build a working collaboration for our mutual goals: transparency and accountability,” he said.

Batista is clear that his role is to be independent and impartial. He will establish what is essentially a courtroom (although PERA’s rulings are only recommendations for discipline to the police department and carry no legal weight).

It’s clear Batista is reading voraciously—he describes himself as an introvert who would prefer to have the whole day inside to read and write. He cares about the research, like a study that prompted Las Vegas to change police policy to restrict officers in foot chases from actually touching pursued suspects until their partner arrives, and the numbers, like the resulting 10 percent reduction in use of force.

But those who know him well are worried. “It’s the difficulty of the position, especially in these times, with policing all over the country experiencing and causing a lot of community pushback,” said McDonnell, his professor and mentor.

I ask Batista about the possibility of facing the same kind of pushback from the police as the original PERA board. “I don’t think it has to be as adversarial,” he says, “Regulation exists everywhere. The FEC regulates the banks. The FDA regulates drugs. So it exists. The question is how are we going to do it.” Batista has committed himself to a meticulous process in answering that question, but said he will begin with the basics: creating a website and phone number for PERA, and establishing operating rules for the body.

Paré, on behalf of the police department, said he was committed to developing a good relationship with Batista, "We think we can get to where the board and Mr. Batista can perform their function under the law."

 

+++

 

Last year, before PERA was even on Batista’s radar, he considered running for attorney general of Rhode Island, to challenge the favorite for the position, Peter Neronha, from the left. Inspired by progressive prosecutors like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, Batista dreamed of big changes. He rattled them off to me: abolishing cash bail, stopping marijuana prosecution, eliminating money bail altogther for low-level offenses. He spoke of the structural inequities of the courts he has worked in for three years.

But he was a political outsider, worried about giving up his private practice, and decided against the run in the end. “Lo and behold, I think it was the right thing to do,” he said. “But I got to tell you that fire is still there.” The success of PERA depends on it.

 

LUCAS SMOLCIC LARSON B'19 believes in Batista.