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State ACLU points to prejudiced policing

Report details police discrimination against, disportionate arrests of black Rhode Islanders

This series explores the racial dynamics of Rhode Island’s school-to-prison pipeline. This story, the last of three, looks at racial profiling and policing in Rhode Island.

A new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island Feb. 19 outlines the disproportionate rates at which state police choose to search, arrest and incarcerate non-white versus white citizens.

The report cites three analyses by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice — from 2003, 2006 and 2014 — which all concluded that “non-white drivers were more likely than white drivers to be stopped by police across Rhode Island, more likely to be searched once stopped and yet less likely to be found with contraband.”

Police only “need to have probable cause or reasonable suspicion” in order to search a person’s car, said Hillary Davis, an ACLU of R.I. policy associate who worked on the report.

Rhode Island’s Racial Profiling Prevention Act of 2004 made it illegal for police to stop and search individuals on the basis of race or to conduct “consent searches” — in which a citizen consents to a warrant-less search — without probable cause, according to the ACLU’s 2007 racial profiling report.

But between 2004 and 2014, nine out of 10 state police departments experienced increases in the ratio of non-white to white drivers searched, with state police two times more likely to search a non-white than a white individual in 2014, the report stated.

“We would love for law enforcement to take a hard look at why these disparities exist,” Davis said.

Steps were taken in 2013 to create positive dialogue between police and residents through three Providence outreach forums entitled, “Building Bridges in the Community.” 

One of the many issues discussed included that of “jump-out boys,” who are a part of the Providence Police Department’s gun task force, reported the Providence Journal.

Jump-out boys are undercover cops who attempt to intimidate community members on the streets, said Fred Ordonez, executive director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, an organization dedicated to empowering low-income families of color. The police then “push them against the wall and search them,” Ordonez said.

“It’s not that people (in white suburban areas) are taking less drugs, making fewer driving violations,” Ordonez said, adding that the disparities are instead caused by police targeting poor urban areas or people of color.

“The police do not represent the demographics of the constituency of where they police,” he added.

In 2014, the Providence Police Department was found by R.I. Future to be “one of (the) least racially representative in the country,” using data from a study of the 75 largest police forces in the U.S. conducted by FiveThirtyEight. ThePPD, with 444 officers at the time, was not included in the FiveThirtyEight study, but only three of the 75 that FiveThirtyEight examined were less representative in their police forces than Providence.

“There have been conversations about increasing diversity, specifically in the Providence Police Department,” Davis said, adding that she does not believe this action alone will create a meaningful impact. “You can put as many officers of different colors in place as you want,  but if the culture or policies are flawed, that’s not going to change anything.”

One potential solution is the use of police body cameras, said James Janison ’16, vice president of Brown ACLU. “Regulated use of police body cameras has been supported by the national ACLU,” he said.

A study conducted in 2012 in Rialto, California, found that the use of body cameras on police officers decreased complaints to police departments by 88 percent, the New York Times reported.

“One possible reason is that you have to behave when you’re on camera,” Janison said.

The ACLU report, entitled “The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Black and White,” discusses the disparity in police searches in connection to Rhode Island’s disproportionately black prison population. Black individuals, who make up 6 percent of the state’s population, constitute 30 percent of the state’s incarcerated, according to the report.

Most of Rhode Island’s prison population is jailed for non-violent offenses, or “crimes of poverty,” Ordonez said.

Among these non-violent offenses is possession of marijuana. Black individuals were found to be 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white individuals in the period between 2001 and 2010, despite statistics that put the annual reported rate of marijuana use by blacks at 14 percent and whites at 12 percent.

The ACLU supports legalization and taxation of marijuana. “Drug addiction and drug abuse has to be dealt with as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue,” Ordonez said.

In 2013, Rhode Island legislators decriminalized marijuana — possession is now a civil offense and punishable only by a fine, Davis said.

But traditionally, legislators have tried to fight crime by increasing punishments, enforcing stiffer jail times or creating more penalties, Ordonez said, adding that problems such as crime, unemployment and under-education are only exacerbated by heightened law enforcement strategies.

In 2013, the General Assembly expanded the definition of “felony” to include certain graffiti offenses. A year later, the GA approved a controversial bill that would add 10 years to any felony committed in connection to a gang. The bill defined a gang as any “organization, association or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts (and) having an identifiable name or common identifiable signs, colors or symbols.”

The definition is so vague that college fraternities can be considered gangs, Ordonez said.

A letter signed by 20 Providence organizations urging then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee to veto the bill wrote that “it is all but guaranteed that this bill will be used not against gang members committing violent offenses, but against at-risk youth making mistakes.” Under this legislation, “an 18-year-old who writes a recognizable gang sign on the side of a bus could face twelve years in prison,” the letter continued.

The ACLU report comes in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, that heightened national attention to the tense relationship between law enforcement and black community members.

Rhode Island often “sees itself as exempt on some of the issues that the rest of the country is facing,” Davis said, but FBI data on 13 R.I. police departments from 2011-2012 tells a different story. A 2014 USA Today analysis of this data found that blacks were arrested “at rates up to 9.1 times higher than the rate for non-blacks,” according to the ACLU report. Ferguson’s 2012 arrest rates for blacks were 2.8 times higher than for non-blacks, the ACLU report noted.

“It’s systemic racism,” Ordonez said.

Tuesday, the New York Times reported on the results of a United States Department of Justice investigation of Ferguson’s police force. Some of the findings include that black individuals constituted 93 percent of the city’s arrests and 85 percent of the city’s vehicle stops between 2012 and 2014, despite the fact that black individuals only make up about two-thirds of the city’s population. The Department of Justice may pursue legal action against Ferguson officials on the basis of a constitutional violation regarding police discrimination, the New York Times reported.

Potential solutions outlined in the ACLU report include enacting comprehensive legislation banning racial profiling and acknowledging it as an issue that requires political action.

Legislator responses to the report so far have been limited.

After reading the ACLU report, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed released a statement citing the disparities evident in the statistics: “The troubling issues raised in the ACLU report point out how far our society has yet to go before we achieve true equity.” The statement mentioned the racial profiling legislation passed by the Senate last year and an initiative to create full-day kindergarten throughout the state, but did not proffer any new legislative actions to counter disproportionate discretionary searches or prison representation.

Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, released a statement last week saying he had not yet read the report, and House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield and Burrillville, declined to comment on the report when contacted by The Herald. Rep. Blake Filippi, I-Block Island and Charlestown, said he had not yet read the report, and a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin indicated that it would not be appropriate for his office to comment at this time.



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