With Providence profiling ordinance set for final vote, police union goes on attack

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A day before the Providence City Council is expected to pass the Community Safety Act (CSA) for a second time, the city’s police union issued a biting letter Wednesday asking the 15-member legislative body to vote against the far-reaching ordinance.

The letter lays out nine reasons the union opposes the ordinance, including provisions that allow an appointed board known as the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) to review the union contract and “recommend diversionary reinvestments” for the police budget; a policy that requires gang members be removed from an internal police gang list if they haven’t been convicted of a crime in two years; and a requirement that police notify every person they stop that they can obtain a recording of the encounter.

The union’s letter goes on to state concerns about another provision that allows individuals to “file a civil action for injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as compensatory damages against any ‘officer’ in violation of the ordinance,” as well as a policy that prohibits police from seeking identification more than once from anyone who “appears” to be under the age of 18.

“The title of the ordinance itself, the ‘Community Safety Act,’ is offensive,” the letter states. “Its content implies that the community needs to protect itself from the police. Imagine that for a minute. The citizens of Providence having to protect themselves from a nationally recognized, nationally accredited, 21st century community policing agency. The City Council should know better.”

The letter was first reported by WPRO.

The City Council voted 12-0 last week to grant first approval to the ordinance, which prohibits police from relying on everything from race, ethnicity and language to housing status or political affiliation as a reason to suspect that an individual has committed or is about to commit a crime. A second and final vote has been scheduled for Thursday.

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 PERA, an independent nine-member board appointed by the mayor’s office and the City Council.

Mayor Jorge Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare have said they support the ordinance, but Police Chief Hugh Clements has said he doesn’t believe it is necessary and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin opposes it.

The union’s concerns have appeared to gain traction in recent days as some talk-radio pundits criticized the ordinance. Other critics have pointed to the social media feed of one of the CSA’s most vocal supporters – which includes harsh commentary about police officers – as an example of why the ordinance should be voted down. Councilman Michael Correia, who was on vacation for the first vote, became the first councilor to declare he intends to vote against the ordinance Thursday.

Correia said there has been some movement among council members to potentially send the CSA back to the Council Ordinance Committee, but Council President Luis Aponte told reporters Wednesday he expects the CSA will still be approved at Thursday’s meeting.

Aponte said the ordinance has been in the works for nearly three years and the vetting process was open to all union members. He noted that two public hearings were held on the CSA and union members didn’t voice their opposition when they had the chance.

“We were never under the delusion that 100% of the folks would be in support of this, but we did assure that the process would be open and available to everyone,” Aponte said. “It seems to me that in the last minute, in the waning days, now there are all these points of opposition that have come up that had not been raised before.”

Although it doesn’t mention her by name, the union’s letter appears to personally attack Elorza’s communications director, arguing that the CSA would stop police from checking on “suspicious people who are in the area simply because a City Hall employee confused their encounter with a suspicious person as a robbery.” Last year, the mayor’s aide filed a police report claiming a man threatened to assault her outside of City Hall. The charges were eventually dropped.

The letter goes on to state that violent crime in the city “is at historic lows,” noting that in 2016 the city had its smallest number of homicides – 10 – in more than 30 years. No one has been killed in the city this year. The union also noted that only five civilian complaints were filed against the department last year.

“The passage of the CSA is unnecessary and unjust,” the letter states. “It is a slap in the face to the men and women of the Providence Police Department and counterproductive to the safety of Providence. We have the data, both quantitative and qualitative, to support our position. The sponsors of the CSA have neither. They are a radical group with an extreme ideology and would be more than happy to have a police-less society.”

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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