PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Even as minority populations in Rhode Island’s capital city have surged over the last 20 years, the vast majority of Providence’s public safety workers and teachers remain white, according to a report issued last week by a special commission studying diversity and equity in the city’s workforce.
The commission, chaired by Councilwoman Sabina Matos and vice-chaired by Councilman Sam Zurier, found that of the 2,910 police officers, firefighters and teachers employed by the city in 2016, 79% identified as white. Providence’s non-Hispanic white population fell from 64.5% in 1990 to 37.6% in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The report recommends that Providence officials take a series of steps to increase diversity in city jobs, including developing a standardized system for collecting demographic data from employees and reviewing recruitment policies prior to entering into new collective bargaining agreements. The commission also wants the mayor’s office to prepare a baseline data study of the city’s workforce and set benchmarks for increasing diversity.
“Providence is a diverse and ever-evolving city,” Major Jorge Elorza said in a prepared statement. “It is important that our administration, our public safety employees and our school department teachers and administrators reflect the culturally rich demographics that they work each day to serve.”
Elorza called the recommendations a “sufficient first step to setting Providence on the right path.” He noted that more than half of the 21 director-level positions he has hired since taking office have been women and/or identify as minorities.
“Again, this is just a first step, but a true example of a Providence that is working towards reflecting our community more and more each day,” Elorza said.
Across the three departments, whites made up at least 76% of the employees as of May. Of the city’s 407 police officers, 76.4% were white. In the fire department, 78% of the 342 firefighters were white. In the school department, 79% of the city’s 2,141 teachers were white.
In each department, officials told the commission they are working to increase diversity among applicants for jobs.
The commission noted that the police department has made “significant investments in the recruitment of a diverse police force,” but found the department “still under-represents racial and ethnic minorities compared to the population of the city they serve.” Of the recruits selected for the 2014 police academy, 70% were white, 17% identified as Hispanic and 11% were black, according to the report.
The police department has developed a high school feeder program that “helps potential recruits understand the requirements of being a police officer and better prepares them for the rigors of the job,” the commission found.
In the fire department, 75% of the applicants for its most recent fire academy were white despite officials conducting “extensive outreach” in the minority community, according to the report. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said the city does not currently have a feeder program that might encourage Providence high school students to become firefighters.
In the school department, where 63% of students were Hispanic and 20% were black during the 2015-16 school year, only 21% of teachers identify as a minority. School officials told the commission they are willing to “look outside the standard education policy circles for employees with more diverse skills and backgrounds,” according to the report.
The commission submitted its report and recommendations to the City Council at last Thursday’s meeting. Other members of the commission included Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris; Councilman Wilbur Jennings; Anna Cano Morales, the director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Michael Van Leesten, the CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Rhode Island; and Sybil Bailey, the city’s human resources director.