Revised police profiling act wins support from Providence City Council

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence City Council voted Thursday to give first passage to the Community Safety Act, a far-reaching ordinance designed to curb profiling by the city’s police.

The council voted 12-0 to approve the ordinance as hundreds of supporters cheered. Council members Sabina Matos, Michael Correia and John Igliozzi were absent. The ordinance must be approved one more time by the council. Mayor Jorge Elorza has already said he intends to sign it into law.

Just before the vote, the council amended the ordinance to require a review of the Community Safety Act from the commissioner of public safety and the chairman of the Providence External Review Authority six months after it becomes law. Because it wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2018, the review would likely be released after June 30.

“Change can sometimes be challenging,” Councilwoman May Kay Harris, one of the ordinance’s leading supporters, said in a speech before the vote. “It’s often met with resistance, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that change is necessary.”

First introduced in 2014, the Community Safety Act was crafted by a coalition of activist groups and community leaders across the city. The final version of the ordinance was produced after months of negotiations between the Elorza administration, City Council and community groups.

The ordinance 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. It also prohibits officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status or from complying with requests from other agencies – including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – to support or assist operations conducted solely for the purpose of enforcing federal civil immigration law.

The ordinance also dictates how cops should document most of their encounters with the public, explains how officers should handle traffic stops and surveillance 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.

Another provision allows individuals to inquire whether they’re in the police department’s gang database, an intelligence tool officers use to track gang members. People in the database will have the right to appeal their inclusion on the list. Prior to adding anyone under the age of 18 to the database, police will be required to provide written notice to the person and a parent or guardian.

The ordinance was initially opposed by Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, but he said several last-minute changes introduced this week have sufficiently addressed his concerns.

The changes include removing a provision that would have not allowed police to use traffic violations as pretext for searching vehicles and the addition of language that states an officer’s violation of the ordinance shall not be used to suppress evidence in a criminal proceeding.

Other changes include reducing the administrative burden on the police when it comes to notifications of individuals on the gang list and the elimination of a requirement of the city to pay attorney’s fees for a plaintiff in any action or proceeding related to the ordinance.

Supporters of the ordinance also successfully lobbied the council to allow individuals who identify as transgender to indicate their preference to be searched by either a male or female officer. Another change prohibits cops from questioning limited English proficient individuals unless the officer is fluent in the language spoken by the individual or an interpreter is present.

But while the ordinance has broad support among the city’s politicians and community leaders, it has been met with opposition from Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and the Providence police union. Dozens of city cops attended Thursday’s meeting to show opposition.

A spokesperson for Kilmartin said the final draft “does not alleviate any of our concerns regarding the ordinance’s restricting the ability of local law enforcement to constitutionally protect the citizens of Providence.” She declined to comment further.

Providence Police Sgt. Robert Boehm, the union president, said he is concerned about several parts of the ordinance, including a provision that prohibits officers from asking people who appear to be under the age of 18 more than once for identification.

Boehm also said his union is taking issue with increased paperwork for all pedestrian stops and the transgender policy.

“It is our opinion that there are some clauses in this ordinance language that does not help alleviate barriers between citizens and police, but rather perpetuates them,” the union said in a statement this week.

CORRECTION: The original version of this report stated transgender individuals will be searched by an officer of their gender identity. The actual policy allows transgender people to indicate their preference to be searched by either a male or female 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