Council panel backs police racial profiling ordinance in Providence

The City Council Ordinance Committee discusses the Community Safety Act. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Nearly three years after it was first introduced, an ordinance designed to curb racial profiling by Providence police is finally heading to a vote by the City Council.

A council subcommittee voted 5-0 Monday to recommend passage of the proposed Community Safety Act, a far-reaching ordinance that prohibits police from relying on everything from race, ethnicity or language to housing status or political affiliation as a reason to suspect an individual has committed or is about to commit a crime.

The ordinance also dictates how cops should document most of their encounters with the public, explains how officers should handle traffic stops and surveillance, adds transparency to the police department’s 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.

“Although this process has been long, the result is tremendously worthwhile,” Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who represents Lower South Providence, said in a statement. Harris and Councilman Kevin Jackson, both Democrats, were among the ordinance’s leading supporters on the council.

“Through intense, inclusive collaboration, this process brought together activists, elected officials and police officers to come up with a comprehensive piece of legislation that will soon become a valuable tool in strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and the community it serves,” Harris said.

If the ordinance is approved by the full council and signed into law by Mayor Jorge Elorza, it would take effect Jan. 1. The ordinance must be approved twice by the council.

The vote came a week after Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said he couldn’t support the ordinance, in part because of fears that it would make it more difficult to prosecute accused criminals. The Providence Journal editorial board also came out against the proposal last week.

But city officials spent the last week working with advocates to reach a compromise on the ordinance, removing language that would have prohibited police from using traffic violations as pretext for stopping a vehicle for investigatory reasons. Other changes include giving people who identify as transgender the right to indicate whether they would like to be searched by a female or male officer.

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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