THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Taking Action Towards Community Safety

Inside the movement to end racial profiling in Providence

by Jack Brook

Illustration by Dorothy Windham

published October 21, 2016


 

 

From the center of Burnside Park came the brash blasting of trumpets, the pounding of bass drums, the snapping of snares, and the high hooting of saxophones, all strewn together in the 2016 Providence Honk Fest! (PRONK!) music parade, on October 10th. Despite the apparent sonic chaos, a unifying force directed the cacophony: the sound and spirit of protest. Over a dozen community organizations marched with posters reading “Safety, Respect and Justice Together”, “No Justice! No Peace! No Racist Police!”, and “We Demand Police Accountability”. In the center of it all, Vanessa Flores-Maldonado carried a banner expressing the day’s message in red and black paint: “PVD City Council, Pass the Community Safety Act”.

“A whole community has noticed what’s been going on and got behind the CSA,”  Flores-Maldonado told The College Hill Independent. As part of the Stand Together to End Profiling and Un-do Poverty (STEP-UP) Coalition, Flores-Maldonado has coordinated a grassroots movement to reform the Providence Police Department. STEP-UP succeeded in incorporating the Community Safety Act as the central facet and unifying theme of this year’s PRONK!, allowing it to receive significant exposure.

The CSA—a proposed city-wide ordinance—seeks to implement 12 measures designed to prevent racial profiling while increasing police accountability and transparency across the board. Although the CSA has been in the works for nearly two years and continues to face skepticism from the City Council and stiff opposition from the Providence Police Department (PPD), a widespread and mounting community movement led by STEP-UP has put pressure on the city to take decisive action. In an address on September 28, Mayor Elorza stated that the CSA could pass “by the end of the year.” Passing such an ordinance would not be unprecedented—the New York City Council succeeded in overpowering the veto of Mayor Bloomberg in 2013 to put into effect its own Community Safety Act, also designed to limit profiling and stop and frisk policies.

“The future of Providence is young people of color,” says Daniel Schleifer, a founding member of the What Cheer? Brigade, a band that has been performing at PRONK! for ten years. “The CSA is a chance not only for the city to treat its young people more fairly, but to send a message that we understand where our future lies and that we’re trying to do something to take care of our future rather than write it off.”

The formation of STEP-UP in 2014 reflected the fundamental and increasingly visible divide between the PPD and the neighborhoods, largely made up of communities of color, that it interacts with on a daily basis. A special City Council report on “Diversity and Equity in City Government” published in September revealed that, in spite of a 40% decrease in the white population in the city of Providence and a doubling of the Latinx population since 1970, the police department remains overwhelmingly white, with little proportional increase in Latinx or Black officers.

The President of the Providence Fraternal Order of the Police, Sgt. Robert K. Boehm, chose to pin the root of the divide on a misplaced distrust of the police, which he felt contributed to unnecessary hostility against all officers.

“Some people may feel they’ve been victimized,” Boehm told The Independent. “But to generalize an entire occupation, much the same as to generalize an entire race, agenda or nationality is wrong. There are a lot of good police officers who just want to do their job and don’t want to have animosity in the community.”

But regardless of whether officers “just want to do their job,” the CSA asks the police department to confront some of the harmful consequences of officers’ actions. A 2014 study by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice found that people of color in Rhode Island remain more likely to be stopped by the police while driving, and less likely to be found with contraband than white drivers. These findings are consistent with previous studies by the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, all of which point to an increase in disproportionate stops of minorities in the past ten years. Even more disturbingly, that same year, USA Today revealed that the PPD arrests African Americans at 3.7 times the rate of other races. This is a greater racial disparity than that found in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, which was the subject of a scathing Department of Justice report exposing police practices targeting African Americans.

“We believe that in our society we need to have trust in each other,” says 14-year-old Ethan Montañez, a student at Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts who marched at PRONK!. “We need to know that everybody is safe, and no matter where they go, nobody will be intimidated. The Providence police need to stop, think about what they’re doing, and improve.”

 

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Providence and Rhode Island have instituted some significant reforms in the past year, beginning with the Comprehensive Community-Police Relationship Act of 2015. Among other policies, the act mandated that police departments across the state publicly document all stops that don’t result in criminal charges; in addition, it allows juveniles to waive police searches without a warrant. Another important change came in September, when the Justice Department granted the PPD a $375,000 fund to outfit 250 officers with body cameras. With these reforms under its belt, the PPD has been reluctant to adopt the additional restrictions of the CSA. Commissioner of Public Safety Steven M. Paré told The Independent that he thinks “the city is doing enough to eliminate racial discrimination.”

However, proponents of the CSA argue that the new state legislation is merely a watered down version of their proposed ordinance and does not do enough to protect vulnerable individuals and communities of color. A key point of the CSA not covered in the state law include a Standard Encounter Form, which every officer would be required to fill out and provide to citizens after every interaction. The form would detail the reasoning behind the stop, along with the officer’s name and badge number. The CSA also calls for the PPD to provide timely access to interpreters, end collaboration with the U.S. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, increase the transparency of the gang member database, and directly prohibit the use of race as a reason for stopping a person.

“Why can’t we as a city go beyond the state law?” Councilman Jackson says. “Just because it’s acceptable doesn’t mean it’s the best it can be. If we can have both groups [STEP-UP and the PPD] come together and look at that state law and find the pieces that are missing and bring everyone together, why can’t we be an example to the rest of the U.S. about community police relations?”

Another reason for adding more regulations at the municipal level is that, while policies like the Community-Police Relationship Act exist on paper, it is not clear whether these policies are implemented and enforced. The Providence Police Department has had a historically spotty record of complying with state law. According to the RI ACLU, it took years for the PPD (along with the majority of police departments across the state) to properly put into place the necessary forms for citizens to file complaints against police officers, despite a state law from 2004, the Racial Profiling Prevention Act, mandating these forms be made available through department websites.

Further testimony detailing the need for reform at the municipal level came on September 14th, when, in response to months of pressure by STEP-UP and other community groups, the city finally held a public hearing at City Hall to discuss the CSA. The hearing featured over twenty speakers, each strategically chosen by STEP-UP to highlight a certain facet of the CSA.

Although the hall filled to standing-room-only capacity, with others crowding onto the the balcony overhead, less than half the City Council was in attendance.

One of the youngest speakers of the night, Andy Chao, told of walking home alone this summer, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, when he was stopped and detained by Providence police officers. They told him to empty his pockets and asked him questions like whether he was carrying a weapon. “I was told I was being detained because I was supposedly hustling down the street with my hoodie over my head. I was wearing my ordinary, day-to-day outfit. This is the outfit I wore that night,” Chao said, gesturing to his hoodie. “And I want you to keep that question in your mind—do I look like a criminal to you?”

A long silence followed. Then, from behind him, a chorus of loud “No’s” erupted.

“One officer asked me, ‘which gang did I represent?’” Chao said, shaking his head. “Man, I don’t represent nothing. I said I didn’t.

“When that officer finally left, I asked the other officer, did that guy ask what gang represented simply because I was Cambodian? Surprisingly, this officer nodded yes.”

Another speaker, Steven Dy, told of visiting a friend under house arrest when he was 15. As soon as Dy left he says an officer held him against his will and took his photograph, a violation of department policy. He was then told that he was being put in Providence’s “Gang Database”.

Dy, now 23, only find out after emailing the commissioner this year that “in this moment” he was not currently in the database.

“It felt like we were losing in a war we never even knew we were in,” said Dy, the organizing director of Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), one of the four organizations comprising the STEP-UP Coalition.

The Gang Database is one of the most pressing concerns the CSA attempts to address. In an interview with The Independent, the Public Safety Commissioner said the database “is nothing more than knowledge for us, and doesn’t give any greater weight to our decisions.” Such gang databases are a employed by police departments across the country, often obscured from the public eye and proven to contain serious flaws. In August, California released an audit of its police departments’ gang databases, which found them rife with errors and unfounded claims. The condition of the Providence gang database remains unclear, because, as Dy and others highlight, there is no public document stating the reasons for adding someone to the database, nor any way of finding out whether you are on it. There isn’t even a clear definition of a gang member. The Public Safety Commissioner told The Independent that anybody interested can come and ask if they are on the gang list. However, there is no formal policy in place for allowing this, and those placed on the list are not notified. The CSA demands that the Providence Police publish an annual report on the demographics of the gang list and allow those placed on it to have a formal opportunity to appeal.

Hillary Davis, policy associate for the RI ACLU, says that being listed on the gang database makes people more vulnerable to discrimination by the police. If they are charged with a felony, they could potentially face serious consequences under the Gang Enhancement Sentencing Bill, a state law passed in 2014 adding up to 10 years to sentences for gang-related felonies.

“This becomes a way of branding someone as engaging in criminal activity,” Davis says. “These youth are under constant scrutiny and no person should be under constant suspicion of being under criminal activity.”

 

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At the heart of the difference between those in favor of the CSA and those against it is the whether or not certain aspects of policing—what the PPD considers its essential “tools” and techniques—are used in ways that perpetuate institutional racism, regardless of officer intention.

“The project is to find a way to advance the CSA goals without harming legitimate law enforcement,” Councilman Sam Zurier, who remains on the fence about the CSA, told The Independent. “The goal of the CSA is to prohibit traffic stops made just on the basis of race—that needs to stop. But should it be done to eliminate all [pretextual] traffic stops on a broader basis? What needs to happen is to have the language revised so discrimination ends, but legitimate law enforcement continues.”

Others, like Sergeant Mike Fallon of the Fraternal Order of the Police, say that profiling is a legitimate and necessary part of policing.

“There’s a huge difference between profiling and racial profiling,” Fallon says. “Racial profiling is racism. When you stop somebody solely because of their color, that’s racism. If I get a description of a black male running down Whitehall street, and I’m on Whitehall street, and I see a black male running, I’m going to stop that male. Not based on his profile, but on the information given to me. We do it all the time. Everyone profiles. You have to profile.”

While it is true that officers are often only given general information about suspects—“black male, twenties, in jeans and white shirt”—this is the kind of mentality that entrenches the implicit racial biases that have lead to the deaths of Terrance Sterling, Keith L. Scott, Tamir Rice, and the 901 other people of color shot by police in the past two years, according to the Guardian’s police killings database. It’s worth noting, that many instances racial profiling don’t happen in response to suspected crimes that have been called in, they happen because an officer believes a person of color may be engaged in criminal activity. Take the Christopher Johnson case, for example.

On May 18th, Johnson was walking back to his South Providence home after a night out with friends when police officer Matthew Sheridan drove by. Sheridan then made a U-turn and approached Johnson, writing in his subsequent police report that he made “an attempt to check the well-being of the suspect” by asking him “who he was and where he was going.”

Johnson, aware he had done nothing wrong and a block away from his home, asked why he was being stopped. Sheridan did not answer and asked again for his name. Johnson then said, citing Rhode Island law, that if there was no reason for stopping him he had no reason to give Sheridan his name.

Sheridan then blocked Johnson’s path and grabbed him. Johnson asked if he was being detained and if Sheridan was a public servant. “Why you got to go and do that?” Sheridan responded. He then forced Johnson into the car and, in his subsequent report, wrote that Johnson had “attempted to overpower” him.

“Let me tell you, he has a taser and a gun,” Johnson told The Independent. “Why would I try to overpower him? I am a law abiding citizen. I was walking home and he profiled me.”

By the end of the night, Johnson, a 2016 Rhode Island poet laureate nominee, faced three pending misdemeanors for assault, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.

For his part, Sheridan will have to articulate the reasoning behind Johnson’s arrest and why he stopped him in the first place at the time of the trial. If he does, he will likely not face consequences, despite previously facing discipline for a past violent arrest. The police department issued a statement saying they would not be conducting an internal review of Sheridan’s actions because no civil complaint had been filed. Johnson made the decision not to take a plea bargain and instead took the case to trial, currently ongoing in the Superior Court.

“The DA told me ‘Well, you have no reason to talk with a police officer like that’,” Johnson says. “What he is actually saying to me is ‘Black man you should know your place’.”

Cases like Johnson’s are exactly the sort of instances that the CSA would seek to minimize by making officers think twice before confronting someone without probable cause.

“If police officers have some kind of reason or probable cause [for stopping someone], other than he’s black, just document it,” says Fred Ordoñez, Executive Director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality. “Obviously, it’s not going to fix the problem but it’s going to force them to take a second and pause. If an officer is stopping people solely based on race and they start having to write it down, it will reduce the blatant racial profiling that is happening.”

However, Commissioner Paré looks to instances like these as problems not so much with specific officer techniques like pretextual stops, but as instances demanding citizen vigilance in reporting alleged police brutality.

“If I get stopped and the officer says it’s because the car I’m driving looks similar to one that was stolen, I might feel violated because I think that the police stopped me for other reasons,” Paré says. “Well, laws won’t change that. What will is when people come in and let that department know; say that ‘This doesn’t feel right’, when they come forward and say ‘This is what happened to me’. That’s what’s going to change behavior, when police are scrutinized and reviewed based on what’s happening outside in the streets.”

Paré’s statement relies on on the “bad apples” theory, a claim long made by law enforcement agencies that obscures the structural problems of policing by suggesting instances of police brutality or racial prejudice are perpetrated by a handful of rogue officers, the exceptions rather than the rule. The increased data collection could help point this issue of contention, but the consistently disproportional rates of arrest for people of color in Providence strongly suggests the problem extends beyond merely a few bad apples to encompass the whole tree, along with its roots in the prison industrial complex and colorblind ideology. Besides, as Johnson says, “If all police are covering for the bad apples and not speaking up, they’re just as guilty.”

The solution of holding police officers accountable primarily through civil complaints ignores how difficult this actually is, given that Rhode Island has the strictest police union laws in the books. The Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights provides significant protection for any officer accused of misconduct by a citizen. Under the RI Officer’s Bill of Rights, not only is the officer informed of the complaints and the testimony against him in advance, before being questioned, but, if found guilty, the officer can choose one of the three people who decides their punishment. Even if they are suspended, the department must continue to pay their salary and benefits, as well as the cost of the officer’s attorney.

Moreover, officers are given the benefit of the doubt through a legal device known as “qualified immunity”, meaning that they can only be found guilty of misconduct if there is an explicit precedent for the unconstitutionality of their act. As the RI ACLU has stressed, the immunity statute can be applied by courts to get police officers off the hook in the face of almost any complaint.

Given the safeguards to protecting officers from complaints, it is telling that of the 75 citizen complaints filed against an officer in the Providence Police Department in 2015, only seven were sustained by the PPD internal review system.

Shannah Kurland, the legal director of PrYSM who has worked on several cases against the Providence police department, suggested that for many citizens, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status, the actual process of filing a complaint can be quite intimidating and resource-draining, meaning most don’t take the steps to do so. According to a US Department of Justice nation-wide survey, “although 75 percent of citizens experiencing force thought the level of force used was excessive,” only 11 percent filed a formal complaint. In Providence, citizens who do must be ready at the time they file to appear and testify.  

“Most people don’t have the resources to deal with the emotional and psychological violence they encounter” in police brutality cases, said Kurland. “You know the old saying, if you don’t have broken bones, don’t bother? The department’s internal review staff are very professional, very courteous and nice, but they are looking at these issues from the perspective of the police officers.”

 

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Whether or not the CSA will be passed by the end of the year, or ever, rests largely on the willingness of PPD and the Office of Public Safety to engage in a constructive dialogue with STEP-UP Coalition. Mayor Elorza, who endorsed ten of the twelve CSA measures in his 2014 mayoral campaign, has since toned down his support in response to concerns from the police, though he continues to endorse the broader goals of ending racial discrimination.  

“Doing good police work...does not have to come at the expense of people feeling unsafe or unsure of whether they can trust the police,” Elorza said at a forum on the CSA in September. “These are questions and issues that are not always answered by one piece of legislation but by a comprehensive approach of the community acting together.”

However, members of STEP-UP remain skeptical that the Police Department and the Mayor’s office are willing to take the step of “acting together” with the communities they serve, particularly if that means working closely with activist groups. “The big problem here is institutional,” Ordoñez says. “What these communities need is help and opportunities. Police here operate as part of a punitive system, where we have punishments in lieu of rehabilitative services.”

If the past can offer us any insight into how such an attempt at institutional reform will play out, it is not optimistic. Last year, DARE learned that the Open Society Foundation, a grant-making organization, was looking to expand a drug treatment program which had enjoyed tremendous success the past few years in Seattle. After three years, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program there had shown a 58 percent reduction in recidivism by redirecting low level offenders with mental illnesses and drug abuse issues to special services instead of jail.

With $200,000 in grant money on the line, DARE went about gathering the support of all those whose involvement would be needed to make the program successful in Providence, receiving the support of a wide range of organizations and prominent city officials.

Ordoñez knew that to receive the grant and implement the program, the support of the Mayor and the police department would be vital. He says that he spoke with Elorza, who initially “loved the opportunity and said they [the Mayor’s office and the police] would fully cooperate.” Soon after, however, the Mayor’s office sent him an email, saying, “we do not feel that DARE would be an appropriate partner to implement the program. As DARE becomes a more collaborative partner with the PPD, we are willing to consider any future requests and opportunities to work together.”

Ordoñez then learned that the Public Safety Commissioner, citing DARE’s outspoken criticism of the police, refused to offer his support for the program, effectively sabotaging the opportunity. In the past, DARE had managed to successfully work with the PPD on several projects, such as the Community-Police Relations Act.

“The reason we could not work collaboratively with DARE is because Fred [Ordoñez] attempted to incite violence and publicly condemned the PPD as racists and brutal,” Paré wrote in an email to The Independent.  

The PPD may feel that it doesn’t receive enough respect from organizations like DARE and the communities it represents, and thus avoids working with them. But showing a willingness to work together is the very key to establishing better relations with distrustful communities.

“You as a police officer don’t automatically get respect, you have to earn respect, you have to show people that you genuinely care about them as human beings,” Councilman Jackson says. “You have to give respect first before you get it in return.”

 

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As the PRONK! parade rolled forward down the side the Providence River, a clear sense of hope remained, visible in the coalescence of the hundreds of individuals, all rallying around a cause and a city.

The hope was there in the smile of ninth grader Deury Tavarez, marching with his friends from Youth in Action, and it was splattered all over the hand painted “Kids for the CSA” sign 7-year-old Violet Polloch carried above her head. It was in the twirls of the Extraordinary Rendition dance team, the piece of paper saying “Support the CSA” pinned to the back of a white haired drummer, and the dozens of CSA shirts STEP-UP had made in the public library the past week.

“I just hope that people recognize the movement,” said Steven Dy as he took in the scene before him. “The real goal is for people to understand that there is a fight happening here and they need to be a part of it. It’s all for the good of the city.”

By the Point Street Bridge, while the marching bands played on into the night, PRONK! participant Jamie Washington reflected on the afternoon’s experience: “I believe in any movement that has a good beat,” said Washington. “If I can dance to it and it brings us joy—look at all these different kinds of people from every walk of life, coming together intentionally, joyfully, seeking to create a positive space where we can completely be who we are and be okay with that and revel in it and encourage each other to be safe.”


 

JACK BROOK B’19 thinks you should tell your local councilperson why they should support the CSA.




 

The 12 Points of the Community Safety Act

 

1. Prohibition on racial profiling and other forms of profiling

 

Police cannot use race, ethnicity, color, national origin, language, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religion, physical or mental disability, or serious medical condition as a reason to suspect someone of a crime.

 

2. Standardized Encounter Form

 

Every time police stop someone, they must fill out a card with race, gender, and age of the person stopped; reason for the stop; if there was a search, and the results of the search; how long the stop lasted; results of the stop (ticket, arrest, nothing); and officer’s name and badge number. They must provide a copy of the form to the person who was stopped.

 

3. Video Recording by Police

 

For dashboard cameras, body cameras, and any other devices, recording must start as soon as the officer tells someone to stop, or arrives at the scene where a person is stopped, and recording continues until the stop is ended or that officer leaves. On duty police CANNOT use their personal phones to record anyone unless they are subject to the same policies as department cameras.

 

4. Video Recording by People

 

Police cannot interfere with, harass, or intimidate members of the public who are recording audio or video of police activity in any place that person has a legal right to be.   Any officer who violates this section may be subject to a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a jail term of up to 15 days.

 

5. Traffic Stops

 

Police have to tell the driver why s/he was stopped before they ask ask for any documents and can only ask for driver’s license, car registration and proof of insurance, unless they have probable cause of a criminal offense. Police can’t ask passengers for ID without probable cause of a criminal offense. If the only criminal charge is driving without a license, police cannot arrest the person; they can only give the person a summons to appear in court. Traffic violations are not enough to arrest someone.

 

6. Searches

 

Police cannot ask for consent to search a person, his or her car, or belongings without probable cause of some criminal activity. Police must ask the person what gender officer is appropriate to search the person. No canine (dog) searches allowed without probable cause of criminal activity.

 

7. Surveillance and Privacy

 

Providence Police cannot collect or store information about individuals or groups, or engage in electronic or physical surveillance, or undercover infiltration, without reasonable suspicion that the activities they are monitoring relate to criminal activity.

 

8. Privacy – Youth and Immigrants

 

Police cannot ask youth for proof of identification beyond name and address and cannot photograph juveniles (except as part of the booking process if the youth is charged with a crime or through the automatic cameras, like the ones used in police cars).  Police may not inquire about an individual’s immigration status, and any identification issued by a government outside the U.S. like a consular ID, foreign driver’s license, or passport, will be accepted the same as an ID from a U.S. government agency.

 

9. “Gang” list

 

Police must have a written, public list of criteria or factors before they mark someone as a “gang” member on any list or database. “Associating” with someone else on the list cannot be one of the factors.   If police put someone on the “gang list” they must send that person a form to appeal. If the person denies being a gang member, the accusation may not be shared with anyone else including schools, courts, or prosecutors. If the person is not convicted of any crime within two years , his or her name must be removed. Every year, Providence Police must produce a report with the total number of people on the “gang list,” and a breakdown by age, race, ethnicity, and gender, and the number of people who have appealed being put on the “gang list.”

 

10. Language access

 

The Police Department will create a language access hotline. Officers who don’t speak a person’s language fluently, may not question that person until a qualified interpreter is present. Police may not use family members, friends or bystanders as interpreters except in emergency. No Police Department employee may serve as interpreter during interrogation. Miranda Warnings, and all other important written materials, will be available to a person in her or his primary language. At each police building signs must be posted in the most commonly spoken languages stating that interpreters are available free of charge.

 

11. Collaboration with other law enforcement agencies

 

Formal agreements between Providence Police and other law enforcement agencies must be approved by City Council and posted to the PPD website. The outside agency must comply with all the terms of this ordinance. No one acting on behalf of the City of Providence shall assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law or gather or disseminate information on the immigration status of individuals. The Providence Police Department will not honor requests by ICE to arrest or detain any individual.

 

12. Accountability and Enforcement

 

Quarterly reports of all violations of this ordinance will be posted on the Police Department website and provided to the City Council. The Providence External Review Authority (PERA) will have power to review and recommend that Public Safety and Police Department budgets be reapportioned toward youth recreation and job training programs for failure to enforce this ordinance.