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Liebling '12: Police brutality comes to College Hill

There are days in Providence when it feels like the only thing more common than rain is the police, when, with the Brown, RISD and Providence departments, you can't turn a corner, right here on the East Side, without running into yet another cop car. But even though we live next door to a precinct office, and even as our demand for police services is cited to justify imposing a student tax on us out-of-towners, we on College Hill hear precious little about police-community interactions.

The rest of Providence, though, is not quite as immune. While we on campus have heard little to nothing about it, the rest of the city has been atwitter since December over a case of police brutality as clear as they come, and the city's failure to do anything but punish the victim.

Back in October, a group of Providence and RISD officers caught up with Luis Mendonca after a brief chase in a parking lot off Benefit Street. He was subdued and in handcuffs, with police officers starting to take him away, when Providence police detective Robert DeCarlo marched up to the helpless Mendonca and kicked him. He started swinging away with a flashlight, mercilessly beating Mendonca again and again until the other officers pulled Mendonca past DeCarlo, when he took one last parting kick at his victim's limp body.

The police report filed by the officers naturally makes no mention of DeCarlo's gratuitous hunt for a punching bag. But unfortunately for the detective, his macho power trip was all caught on tape by a security camera aimed at the lot, and that tape fell into the hands of the Providence news media this December.

Mendonca, who according to his lawyer was in a coma for two days, was convicted of assault and sent to jail. DeCarlo kept his job pending an internal investigation, and to date has not been charged with a crime. When police officers investigate police officers, they tend to find themselves innocent, especially when the son of the Internal Affairs investigator working on the case was an officer on the scene that night.
Mendonca has since been handed over to the federal agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and faces deportation, despite the fact that he is a documented immigrant, living legally in the United States. DeCarlo remains a free man.

It was under these circumstances that Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman had the gall to call a meeting in Elmwood two weeks ago to tell Providence residents how to reduce violence in their own communities. Though his department remains incapable of policing itself and bringing violent criminals in its own ranks to justice, he thought it would be appropriate to meet with the public to tell them why they're not doing enough on their part.

While many of those present at the meeting called for more jobs and community programs as the time-tested way to discourage violence, Esserman announced that the city was expending its resources, doubling the size of the department's gang unit and placing more officers in public schools. The news was rightly and roundly booed by those who had come to remind Esserman that, as the DeCarlo incident illustrated, police are often the perpetrators, more interested in protecting their own than in making any honest effort to reduce violence.

Given the lack of any semblance of justice for Mendonca, it's hard to imagine the public responding positively to an increased police presence in their neighborhoods and schools. Spending money on cops while ignoring the suggestions of community members and organizations breeds resentment, not progress. And since the Providence Police Department has shown that its officers can beat defenseless citizens with impunity, more cops means more situations like this one. Except next time, the officer will be more careful to avoid security cameras.

And that's part of what makes this incident so scary. Were it not for the security footage, we would have taken the cops' word over Mendonca's, and DeCarlo would have gotten away with it as soon as the officers filed their falsified police report. It raises the question of how often this happens beyond the fortuitous gaze of witnesses and surveillance cameras, but it also shows us that police are only accountable when they are being watched.

Which is where we come in. Remember, this didn't happen in some distant neighborhood you never visit: This was on College Hill, on Benefit Street. We each have the capacity to stop violent cops like DeCarlo from victimizing people like Mendonca. We can pay attention to the police we see everywhere. Make them well aware that their communities are watching them and keeping them honest. And let them know that if we see something, we'll say something.

Simon Liebling '12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at
simon.liebling [at] gmail.com.


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