Metro, News

Community-Police act criticized as implementation nears

Concerns arise about future implementation, evaluation of Community-Police Relations Act

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2017

When the Providence Community-Police Relations Act — formerly named the Community Safety Act — passed June 1 with a 13-1 vote in the Providence City Council, supporters celebrated — one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation regulating police-community relations in the country had been signed into law. Five months later, as the act approaches its implementation Jan. 1, questions remain regarding how that process will go.

The idea to implement a set of laws regulating police-community conduct first began in 2014, but the path from inception to passage was riddled with controversy. The ordinance went through a series of revisions and drafts before passage this June. The final version included a provision banning racial, gender-based, religious or sexual-orientation based profiling; a section that provided residents with a way to challenge being named on the city’s “gang database;” and a standard of conduct for police officers conducting traffic or pedestrian stops, Rhode Island Public Radio reported. The ordinance passed with a sweeping majority.

While a host of people showed support during the legislative process by participating in marches and rallies, many are “not sticking around” for the implementation phase, said Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, the main organizer behind the Community Police Relations Act. She raised concerns over the negative attitude of the Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s police union, toward the act and questioned the effectiveness of Providence External Review Authority.

PERA is a regulatory body, established with a broad mission to “investigate allegations of misconduct” within the city’s police department, according to the city’s main website. As of Jan. 1, this will include violations related to the CPRA. PERA changes staffing every few years and it will be staffed with the new members in 2018, according to Mary Kay Harris, Providence City Councilwoman.

“The City Council will choose 8 community members, from 8 different city wards, to serve on  (PERA). The Mayor will choose one,” wrote Harris in an email to The Herald. Harris was on the inaugural PERA committee when it was first established in 2002.

Flores-Maldonado said the resistance from the Fraternal Order of Police makes the act difficult to implement. In an interview with WPRI published two weeks ago, the police union’s new president Michael Imondi said he doesn’t think an ordinance that makes major changes to how officers do their jobs is necessary. He has been against PCPRA “since day one,” and the majority of his members share his sentiments, but the Fraternal Order of Police is not sure whether they can repeal CPRA before Jan. 1, he told WPRI. “In a perfect world, I’d like to see it repealed or taken back,” he said to WPRI.

The Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Herald.

Steven Brown, the director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union shares Maldonado’s concern over the Fraternal Order of Police’s attitude but thinks it is unlikely the city council will make any major changes at the last minute. “Too many people would be extremely upset to see that happen, I don’t think they want to go in that road,” he added. Having a police chief who is vigilant and ready to take action against the officers who violate the ordinance will be crucial in the implementation process, Brown said.

Lindsay Lague, a spokesperson for the Providence Police Department, said the police department is currently working diligently to ensure its policies are updated in accordance to CPRA by Jan. 1 and that training and resources are in place to ensure successful compliance. “The department worked with the community as part of a working group that helped create and review the ordinance and we are confident our department will adapt swiftly to any changes to current policies,” she added.

PERA will be tasked with reviewing certain police policies to make sure they align with CPRA once it goes into effect. The regulatory body is another source of concern for Maldonado. PERA has a lot of power in the implementation process, and it will be important to ensure the board is properly staffed by unbiased members, she said. Since community members do not have a say on who gets elected to PERA, Maldonado worried the board might overrepresent police interests and underrepresent community ones.

But Harris says there is representation on the board because it is comprised of community members from across the city. She added that “the board can and will be neutral. Members will have to have certain skills, they will have to be committed and there will be required training to ensure the neutrality of the group.”

Concern about PERA’s role in CPRA implementation stems partly from its history in the city according to Brown. “PERA mainly has been toothless in the past in terms of being really able to take any action against officers who may have violated earlier ordinances or engaged in other types of police misconduct,” Brown said. Other means of enforcing the ordinance could carry a lot of importance in successful implementation, he said. These means include supervisory police officers willing to take action within the department or community members who decide to bring lawsuits under the ordinance.

In the past, “PERA was underfunded and unable to really do the work that is was intended to do,” Harris wrote. But going forward, the “City Council did not invest in this program to fail. We are committed to making this work and work well for all community members.”

Outside of potential implementation challenges, Brown also expressed concern over the removal of a provision in an earlier version of the act that would have allowed successful plaintiffs to recover their attorney’s fees. As a matter of civil liberty, anyone who feels their rights have been violated has the prerogative to bring their complaints to court and seek legal remedy, but the cost of representation may deter people whose rights were wrongfully violated from taking legal action, he said.

But overall, the ordinance is successful in covering many different grounds — from defining the standard of conduct for police in pedestrian and traffic stops, to enumerating the rights of immigrants in the city, Brown said. “The ordinance is really pretty clear on what is allowed and what is not allowed. It is not a question of how do we enforce this provision, it is whether it actually gets enforced or not,” Brown said.