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Prov. Police Dept.’s new community relations major generates backlash

City Council moves to redesign position, job description as civilian role

<p>Mayor Jorge Elorza appointed Michael Stephens as the new Providence Police Community Relations Major.<br/></p>

Mayor Jorge Elorza appointed Michael Stephens as the new Providence Police Community Relations Major.

The Providence City Council moved to reclassify the Community Relations and Diversion Services Major position to a civilian role following criticism of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s pick for the position on Sept. 16.

The original position called for a fifth major in the Providence Police Department with a budget designed to accommodate needs and responsibilities that included diverting calls better suited to special services like mental health care providers, supervising trainee recruitment, training and selection and strengthening ties with the community, as per the original job posting. The role of major is typically reserved for those who have graduated from a law enforcement academy.

The original requirements, which have since been amended, required applicants to have at least 10 years of experience as a police officer and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or adjacent fields.

In a Jan. 28 press release announcing the creation of the Community Relations and Diversion Services Major, Elorza stated that the position would “uplift the voices of our community to the highest levels of leadership within the Providence Police Department.” The move was “part of (the) city’s efforts to advance long-term community policing strategies,” according to the press release.

On Sept. 3, Elorza named Michael Stephens, Providence recreational director and long-time basketball referee, as his appointee. But appointing a civilian as a police major incited controversy when “talking specifically about the justice reform and the future of policing after George Floyd,” said Charles P. Wilson, Rhode Island College police lieutenant and the chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.

The fifth major position in the PPD was seen by many as an attempt to have a “Black major” position or an opportunity for Black law enforcement officers to rise through the ranks. “The institution of policing, as it is commonly practiced in the United States of America, is inherently biased against people of color and low-income (people), and it was designed to be that way. That is the foundation upon which every police department in this country is based,” Wilson said. “You still have no Black law enforcement voice in the command structure of the Providence Police Department. In the last 30 years, there have only been two Black majors.”

City Council President John Igliozzi said that “unfortunately the mayor made a unilateral decision to appoint the recreational director as a police officer, which of course is totally counterintuitive to what we’re trying to do.” 

Wilson echoed this sentiment. “The person they have selected (for) this current position is absolutely, no questions asked, no arguments taken, not qualified to hold the position,” he said. Wilson pointed to Stephens’ lack of police experience as reason for why he cannot hold a position in which he is giving orders to police officers. “There were at least three Black officers who applied for that position,” Wilson said. “All three of them are highly skilled, highly knowledgeable law enforcement officers. And you’re telling me you’re going to look over those qualified people to pick somebody who has no experience? That’s mind-boggling to say the least.”

Others believe Stephens’ skills gained on the basketball court as a referee, as well as his long-standing history of strong community building and relations, qualify him for the position. Reggie Greenwood, a fellow referee and longtime friend of Stephens, said that Stephens  “knows how to attack the task and get it done, so I think that he’s a good candidate for this position.”

Some do not believe the position’s title matters, but instead emphasized the need to provide a community relations role in one way or another. “If Michael Stephens can provide that (community-building) function, regardless of title, I will be happy with that,” said Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP. He added that he doesn’t think the person who runs the diversion program must be an agent or a police officer, just that such a position is necessary. 

Vincent was part of the selection committee that recommended candidates to Elorza. “We as a selection committee were given resumes of both police officers and civilians. So, we felt that there was a model out there where there were civilians that held major positions and were making a difference in terms of diversion services,” Vincent said. “I trust the commissioner. I trust the chief” to provide the committee with a qualified applicant pool. The committee was given 20 to 30 applicants, from which it chose seven finalists including five police officers and two civilians. Then it voted to emerge with four “vote-getters,” three police officers and Stephens. These names, along with the voting order, were passed on to Elorza, who made the final selection. 

Since Stephens’ appointment, there have been changes to the job description, title and budget for the role as per the City Council’s decision. “It’s no longer going to be a police major position; it’s going to be a civilian administrative position,” Igliozzi said. “The person will not be running, organizing or giving commands to a police academy. You need to leave that to the qualified individual.” This change in position title for the original major role was accompanied by a decrease in allocated funds for the role, in addition to creating a separate “police manager position” to uplift Black voices, he added.

“Considering that the city council is now seeking to eliminate funding for the currently selected position and reestablish it as a strictly civilian position, as well as creating a separate, formal police-rated position, I believe that to be the correct, proper and only direction for this issue to go,” Wilson wrote in an email to The Herald in response to these new developments. “Should he be so inclined, Mr. Stephens should be welcomed to apply for the new civilian position, one for which he appears to be qualified.”

The need still remains for a diversion services commander. Wilson described from the point of view of a police officer that “we are not trained properly to handle mental health issues. We are not trained properly to handle situations that deal with emotional distress. So, it makes more sense to have people alongside a law enforcement officer ... who (are) trained in that area.”

Stephens and Elorza did not respond to requests for comments.




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