With new name, Providence police reform ordinance returns this week

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Goodbye, Community Safety Act. Hello, Providence Community-Police Relations Act.

A high-profile police reform ordinance that won initial approval from the Providence City Council before being tabled for further discussion in April will return to the council docket this week with a new name and less opposition from leaders in the city’s police department.

The Council Ordinance Committee is expected to discuss a report on the proposal completed by an 11-member working group at a meeting Tuesday night. The full council is planning to take a final vote on the revised ordinance Thursday evening.

So aside from the new name, how has the ordinance changed over the last month?

For one, a provision that would have prohibited police from photographing individuals who appeared to be under the age of 18 with few exceptions – such as if the juvenile is being charged or if there is reasonable suspicion that they’ve engaged in criminal activity – has been altered to state that police can’t photograph individuals confirmed to be under 18 with the same exceptions.

Language in the proposal that allows individuals to sue officers if they believe they have been subjected to violations of the ordinance now requires the officers to have made “knowing and willful violations” of the ordinance. Police will also be required to provide their federal identification number – the most identifiable number on an officer’s uniform – to individuals during stops and searches rather than their badge number.

When it comes to the gang database, no police department official can identify someone as a gang member “in written notes unless the individual meet the criteria for inclusion on the so-called ‘gang list’ or ‘gang database.’” People in the database still have the right to appeal their inclusion on the list. Prior to adding anyone under the age of 18 to the database, police will still be required to provide written notice to the person and a parent or guardian.

In a text message sent Friday, Sgt. Robert Boehm, the president of the police union, told Eyewitness News he sees “no major issues” with the changes to the proposal. The union’s criticism was one of the driving forces behind the City Council’s decision to table the ordinance in April.

Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements, who also voiced concern with the previous proposal, said Friday he believes he can support the changes to the ordinance. Both Boehm and Clements were members of the working group.

Other than the minor tweaks, the previous version of the ordinance remains largely intact.

The ordinance still 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 bars 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.

The working group that made the changes to the ordinance met five times over the last month. The group included three City Council members as well as representatives from Mayor Jorge Elorza’s office, the police department and the solicitor’s office, and three community members.

Elorza has repeatedly said he intends to sign the ordinance into law if it wins approval from the City Council. The ordinance would take effect Jan. 1.

Continue the discussion on Facebook

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