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Editorial: Ray Kelly lecture offers lens to examine local policies

This afternoon, New York police commissioner Ray Kelly will deliver a lecture sponsored by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. Kelly’s arrival has stoked controversy because  he supports stop-and-frisk policies in New York City. Yesterday, we responded to calls to cancel the event, speaking to the benefits of free speech on campus. Today, we will examine the “broken windows” model of policing that has inspired the stop-and-frisk model in New York City and illuminates the flawed “community policing” strategies employed in Providence. These strategies have been implemented to combat crime but lead to racial profiling and unwarranted searches that violate civil liberties. We encourage the Providence Police Department to buck the trend set by the NYPD, as its tactics provide more opportunities for police misconduct and discrimination.

The “broken windows” theory was developed during the 1980s and has grown in popularity due to its heavy use in New York. This model suggests smaller acts of crime such as vandalism, littering and broken windows devolve into serious crime if unaddressed. The theoretical response is a zero-tolerance policy that prosecutes each infraction, no matter how minor, to the fullest extent of the law. Stop-and-frisk policies stem from this theory: They are intended to halt criminals of any kind by searching them for any evidence of illicit activity. But this has led to racial bias and police transgression, a claim raised by defendants in a federal lawsuit against the NYPD in an attempt to cease stop-and-frisk policies in New York.

While the Providence Police Department has made clear it will not enact stop-and-frisk, its implementation of “community policing” opens Providence to the same potential for police misconduct. Dean Esserman developed community policing in Providence in 2003 when he was promoted to chief of police. Esserman’s model involved splitting the department and increasing the number of police officers on the ground. These measures, in addition to the creation of the Providence External Review Authority, were intended to increase trust between communities and the police department and  crack down on petty crimes. But such policies have been effective in only one of these regards. Officers are stopping more civilians, but community relationships have not improved. PERA has no authority to sanction an officer or mandate disciplinary measures. It can merely investigate civilian complaints. In 2010, its board was cut from 22 members to nine. PERA fails as a resource for civilians looking to report police misconduct.

At the same time, police misconduct and allegations of racial bias are still very real problems in Providence. This past spring, police officers beat, choked and pepper-sprayed a 21-year-old black male named Joshua Robinson repeatedly. As a result of the incident, Robinson was hospitalized for facial and bodily lacerations. He was purportedly pulled over for cocaine possession and arrested for assaulting the officers, but all evidence seems to point to the contrary. Robinson is a mere 115 pounds and five feet tall. The officers who arrested him were all about six feet and displayed no injuries. Additionally, no evidence of drugs was found. A few months earlier, a 77-year-old Cambodian woman was allegedly dragged from her bed, videotaped and taunted by Providence police during a drug raid. These and other incidents demonstrate that police brutality and misconduct still affect this community, and that civilians lack a real mechanism to report offenses.

Kelly’s arrival offers a chance to debate local police misconduct and policing strategies.  Providence needs a review board with teeth, one that gives citizens an avenue to report unlawful behavior by law enforcement. Providence can choose the NYPD model, in which citizens can be stopped and searched for any reason. Alternatively, the city can diverge from the flawed “broken windows” model and attempt to foster a relationship between its police and the people it seeks to protect. Kelly’s speech should bring the debate about police misconduct to the forefront, and we should push for greater monitoring and reporting of police conduct.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Rachel Occhiogrosso, and its members, Daniel Jeon, Hannah Loewentheil and Thomas Nath. Send comments to



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