12 things to know about Providence’s proposed racial profiling ordinance

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It’s called the Community Safety Act.

Mayor Jorge Elorza and the City Council have been facing pressure from activists to approve a far-reaching ordinance designed to curb racial profiling by Providence police for more than two years, but law-enforcement officials and the police union have raised questions about the constitutionality of the proposal.

So what does the ordinance actually call for? Eyewitness News obtained a revised version of the proposal that is expected to be introduced to the City Council Ordinance Committee this month.

Here’s what you should know.

The ordinance covers a lot of ground.
The proposal is 16 pages, meaning there’s a lot there. In basic speak, police would be prohibited from relying on anything from race, ethnicity or language to housing status or political affiliation for suspecting that an individual has committed or is about to commit a crime. But it also includes language dictating how cops should document most of their encounters with the public, explains how officers should handle traffic stops and surveillance, adds transparency to the gang list and grants more power to the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), an independent, nine-member board appointed by the mayor’s office and the City Council. Several provisions in the ordinance are already written or unwritten police department policies, but they would now become law. The ordinance stops short of laying out penalties for officers who don’t comply with the new rules.

The proposal predates Mayor Elorza, Black Lives Matter and the rise of Trump.
The ordinance was first proposed in the summer of 2014 by a coalition that calls itself the Standing Together to End Profiling and Undo Poverty (STEP UP) Network. The group, which includes the Providence Youth Student Movement, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, American Friends Service Committee, and Olneyville Neighborhood Association, was concerned with how some Providence police officers were treating members of the community, particularly young males of color. Most of the candidates for mayor in 2014, including Elorza, generally supported the concept of the Community Safety Act and some of the provisions in the original proposal, but none were willing to fully endorse it. Since Elorza’s election, the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and the election of President Trump coupled with several incidents in Providence have fueled calls for city officials to approve the ordinance. (The progressive political blog Rhode Island’s Future has done a good job chronicling the advocates’ efforts to pass the ordinance, which you can follow here.)

Some parts of the proposal are already in state law.
Rhode Island lawmakers have already taken some action to address racial profiling by police officers. In 2015, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the Comprehensive Community-Police Relationship Act (CCPRA), a bill that was largely focused on racial disparities in traffic stops but also addressed how police should handle searches of individuals. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare cited the overlap as one of the reasons the Community Safety Act wasn’t ready for primetime, but supporters of the ordinance say it considers many of the concerns that weren’t addressed in the state law.

There is some sanctuary city language in the ordinance.
While the term “sanctuary city” does not appear in the proposal, it does add some of Providence’s existing policies around immigration into law. For example, officers would not be allowed to detain an individual based on a civil immigration waiver or an administrative warrant issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after the person is eligible to be released from custody. The only exception is when ICE has a criminal warrant for the suspect. Police would also not be allowed to inquire about a person’s immigration status.

Body camera recordings must be kept for at least 60 days.
We already know Providence is moving forward with a plan to place body cameras on every officer, but we still haven’t seen a final version of the police department’s policy on the use of the cameras. The Community Safety Act doesn’t fully outline how body cams should be handled, but it does mandate that any policy be a public record. It also forces cops to explain when they are recording an encounter and requires recordings to be retained for no less than 60 days. The ordinance also prohibits officers from using personal devices for recording encounters.

Providence’s gang list would be revamped.
City cops maintain a working database of individuals they believe are members of street gangs, but very little information about the list is available to the public. If the Community Safety Act is approved, any individual would be allowed to ask the police if they are on the list. Anyone under the age of 18 who is on the list would be informed by notarized letter delivered via certified mail to the kid and an adult guardian. Individuals would also be able to appeal their presence on the gang list to PERA. Members of the list would be eligible for removal if they go two years without a conviction and no new reason for why they should remain on the list is established.

The city would have written policies around targeted surveillance.
The ordinance prohibits police from engaging in targeted electronic surveillance to collect information about the lawful activities of individuals or groups without reasonable suspicion that such activities relate to criminal activity. Police also wouldn’t be allowed to go undercover to non-public places to monitor groups exercising their First Amendment rights. In other words, the police wouldn’t be allowed record private meetings held by supporters of the Community Safety Act simply because they don’t like the ordinance. Separately, police wouldn’t be allowed to consider an individual’s inability to produce identification as probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The ordinance includes policies for individuals who speak limited English.
Miranda warnings as well as all other vital written materials would be available in the five most commonly spoken languages in Providence, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. For individuals who speak other languages, interpretation services would be provided. Officers who are not fluent in an individual’s primary language would have to wait until they have an interpreter present before proceeding with questioning.

PERA would be empowered.
As mentioned above, the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) includes nine independent members, with the mayor and the City Council president each getting an appointee and the seven others coming from the City Council. Under the Community Safety Act, PERA would have more control over the gang list, receive regular reports about traffic stops and have the ability to recommend diversionary reinvestments from the police department budget. PERA would also have the ability review union contracts and accept complaints regarding violations of the Community Safety Act.

The ordinance looks a lot different than it did in 2014.
Depending on what side you’re talking to, the current version of the Community Safety Act is either watered down or more realistic. The original ordinance, which was sponsored by seven members of the City Council in 2014, would have allowed a five-member outside board to approve all contracts between the city and the police union. It also established fines and possible jail sentences for cops who violated the body camera section of the ordinance, banned the use of dogs for investigatory activity and required that any outside law-enforcement agency working with the city agree to comply with the Community Safety Act. City officials, particularly Commissioner Pare, suggested some of the provisions were unconstitutional.

It’s unlikely the police union will support the ordinance.
But that doesn’t mean Union President Sgt. Robert Robert Boehm doesn’t want to have a say in how it is being crafted. Boehm told Eyewitness News he has met with city officials several times to discuss his concerns about the proposal, particularly regarding some of provisions from the original ordinance he believed were unconstitutional. Boehm acknowledged that not all of his members have exemplary records when it comes to working with the public, but suggested that too many of supporters of the Community Safety Act are advocating for a “police-less society.”

The ordinance wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2018.
Unlike some ordinances that take effect upon passage, the Community Safety Act would likely require time and money to train officers on some of the changes. The latest version of the ordinance states that it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2018, giving the city time to include any necessary funding in the next budget and work with cops on the policy changes. Of course, a lot still has to happen before the ordinance makes its way to the mayor’s desk for his signature. Another public hearing is still in the works and the Ordinance Committee would have to set a vote. If it is approved by the committee, it would be sent to the City Council and need two votes for approval.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan