Police oversight agency progresses amid legal uncertainty

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Though the Providence External Review Authority officially opened in June, the organization continues to define its role as a safeguard against police misconduct in the city. As these details are worked out, members of the organization say they also face a potential legal challenge from the Providence Fraternal Order of Police regarding their power to impose disciplinary action.

PERA was created by city ordinance in 2002 as a civilian oversight agency that investigates complaints made against the Providence Police Department. Prior to the agency’s creation, PPD handled all complaints internally. Now, complainants have the option of bringing their case either to PERA or PPD.

According to Leon Drezek, PERA’s executive director, the agency offers a “more open and transparent” process than PPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau. The agency can investigate “the full realm of potential misconduct,” including everything from inappropriate language to excessive use of force, Drezek said. However, certain incidents of a “serious criminal nature” would likely be referred to the office of Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87, he said.

Two well publicized murders in 2000, one of which directly involved PPD officers, fueled accusations of injustice and contributed to the push for civilian oversight of the department.

In January 2000, two PPD officers fired at and killed off-duty officer Cornell Young Jr. while responding to a call outside an Atwells Avenue restaurant. Young, dressed in plainclothes, was attempting to help the officers resolve a dispute between two customers when the officers, who later said they didn’t recognize him, opened fire. Five months later, 15-year-old Jennifer Rivera was shot and killed outside her Providence home just one day before she was scheduled to testify in an unrelated murder trial.

Derzek said he thought that following Rivera’s murder “the community then kind of bound itself together and really looked at creating a civilian oversight agency.”

Tension between PPD and certain community members has existed “long before my time here,” Drezek added. “I think that, like in many major cities, the community and the police often times are not on the same wavelength.”

PERA has received an increasing number of visitors in recent months “as we have become more known to the community,” Drezek said.

“I’m not saying there’s a flood,” he said. “But we have had a number of individuals from the community come in and provide information to us.”

But no complaints have made it to the evidentiary hearing phase of PERA’s investigative process. Until this happens, the agency’s ability to impose disciplinary action remains somewhat unclear. According to its rules and bylaws, a hearing panel’s decisions are referred to the chief of police, who “shall impose discipline based upon the level of violation as found in the disciplinary matrix,” which categorizes different offenses and proposes disciplinary consequences accordingly.

While some members of PERA believe the chief of police should be obligated to enforce this punishment, others wonder whether PERA can demand a specific disciplinary outcome.

According to Mary Kay Harris, current board member and former chairwoman, PERA should operate as “a strong disciplinary board” similar to an external review agency established in Minneapolis.

Harris, a community organizer at Direct Action for Rights and Equality, said she joined the fight for civilian oversight after her son, Reginald Chaney, was assaulted by PPD officer Randell Masterson in 1996. Masterson “split (my son’s) head open and gave him 14 stitches” in front of Chaney’s home, she said. The officer was eventually indicted in April of 1998, though this was later overturned.

“At that time the brutality that was involved in it was devastating,” Harris said. “I started looking for some accountability in that area.” She started working for DARE on projects that championed police reform, including a lawsuit filed with the American Civil Liberties Union for access to records of complaints filed with the department.

When DARE won that lawsuit in 1998, Harris said the released information confirmed suspicions of corruption in PPD’s internal review system. Of 721 complaints made available, only three resulted in guilty rulings against officers, and one of these was later overturned.

The idea behind PERA is to generate more accountability than “the police policing the police,” Harris said. “PERA was not created to be a recommendation board. The community has to know that it has some sort of power by imposing the discipline.”

But Sgt. Robert Paniccia, president of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police, said he views external review as “unnecessary” given PPD’s established methods for handling civilian complaints.

PPD established its Civilian Complaint Process in accordance with the Federal Consent Decree of 1973, which outlined guidelines for internal affairs processes. At the state level, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights established procedural protections that may be violated by external review, Paniccia said.

“We don’t recognize the authority of the external review commission to override those two entities,” Paniccia said. Ultimately, he said he believes it will fall on the courts to determine what role, if any, PERA should serve as a disciplinary body.

“I think there probably has to be a complaint initiated before any other action can be taken,” he said. “As far as I know, (PERA) haven’t brought anything to the department.”

For his part, Drezek said he believes “significant weight” should be give to PERA’s recommendations. “The ordinance does say that the recommendation for discipline action is made directly to the chief of police,” he said.

Though he acknowledged that PERA members and PPD officers “are coming from a different perspective on this,” Drezek said relations between the two bodies have hardly been antagonistic. Both FOP members and PPD management have been “professional and positive” throughout many meetings and hours of discussion, he said.

Paul Caswell, PERA’s current chairman, said he believes some level of resistance is understandable, due to “the perception that it’s giving an extra layer of bureaucracy” that PPD may view as unnecessary. He added that “we are expecting to be challenged by the FOP” should PERA find a PPD officer guilty of misconduct.

“There’s always a pushback when there’s any kind of a change at this level,” Caswell said.

Despite this uncertainty, PERA is “fully functional and hardworking,” Drezek said. In addition to ironing out the details of its operational procedures and drafting a disciplinary matrix, board members have begun neighborhood outreach programs, such as hosting an open house and distributing literature on how to interact with officers in certain situations, he said.

“We’re literally creating the wheel,” Drezek said. “Just because we open up the door doesn’t mean everything is necessarily in place the right way. We need to ensure that we do all of this correctly.”

PERA’s board is made up of as many as 20 appointed members, though currently only 16 positions are filled. Three appointments come from Mayor David Cicilline ’83, two from Council President John Lombardi and one each from the remaining 14 City Council members. The state’s Human Rights Commission also makes one appointment.

Drezek said the board can function with 16 members, adding that he believes the current group adequately represents the city’s population, “not just from a diversity perspective, but from a professional perspective.”

He estimated that he has seen turnover in about one-third of these positions since he assumed the role of executive director in January.

Caswell said the process of assembling a board that comprised “a cross-section of people in the city” proved to be “the biggest hurdle” in getting PERA up and running.

“There wasn’t anybody who really knew how to build an oversight authority,” Caswell said. “So we were kind of working a little bit blindly. For the most part we had to come up with how to do this on our own.”