Arrests by Providence police down 43% since ’07

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The number of arrests made by police in Rhode Island’s capital city fell to a record low in 2016, mirroring a trend that has played out across New England’s largest cities over the last 10 years.

A Target 12 review of a decade’s worth of arrest data shows Providence cops brought misdemeanor or felony charges against 5,491 individuals in 2016, a 43% drop compared to 2007. The slide has been gradual, with arrests falling every year except 2012, when there was a slight increase.

It’s not just Providence. The entire region has seen a steep overall decline in arrests.

Target 12 obtained arrest data for New England’s eight largest cities – Boston, Worcester, Providence, Springfield, Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Stamford – as well as nearby New Bedford and Fall River. Among the findings:

  • The largest reduction came in the largest city: Boston, where arrests fell 52%.
  • Connecticut’s capital city, Hartford, also saw a 50% decline.
  • Every city saw arrests drop at least 8% over the 10-year period.
  • Overall arrests in the 10 cities fell 40% between 2007 and 2016.
  • The largest year-over-year drop across the region came in 2015, when arrests fell 12%.

So what’s responsible for the marked decline in arrests over the last decade?

In Providence’s case, one possible reason is the total number of reported violent crimes and property crimes fell about 20% between 2007 and 2016, while calls for service to the police dropped 17% to 124,000 in 2016, according to a review of crime statistics that the city reports to the FBI and the city’s comprehensive annual financial report.

While acknowledging that the reduction in crime may be part of the answer, Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements suggested conscious policy decisions the department has made are the most likely reasons for the 43% drop. He said some of the department’s specialized units have prioritized larger drug dealers or known shooters as their targets.

“Although the quantity of arrests have gone down, I think the quality of arrests have gone up,” Clements, the chief since 2011, told Target 12. Providence police made a record number of gun seizures in 2016 and major drug busts have continued this year.

At the same time, Clements argued police have had a calming influence over the city’s nightclub and bar scene in recent years. While violence is common when the clubs let out on weekend mornings, Clements said police aren’t handling large groups of troublemakers the way they used to. He also said the department has cracked down on bars that allow underage drinking, particularly near Providence College.

“I can tell you, years ago, we would lock up 10 or 20 people on a Friday or Saturday night,” he said. “We’re not seeing that now. And so we’ve cleaned up our act quite a bit with some of those large disturbances and large number of arrests.”

Arrests and reported crimes aren’t the only metrics that have fallen over the past 10 years – so has the number of cops on the beat. Providence had 494 officers in 2010, but that fell to 386 before a new academy of 55 recruits graduated earlier this month.

Both Clements and Sgt. Robert Boehm, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, agreed that the reduction in manning is another factor when it comes to arrest totals.

“If you have fewer officers, you’re going to have fewer arrests,” Boehm said. “But at the same time, the crime rate is down.”

Boehm said he too sees a combination of factors that may have led to the drop in arrests, including stronger community organizations that support young people, an improving economy and some of the city’s more violent criminals serving long prison sentences. When it comes to drugs, he said the department has tried to help users rather than place them in handcuffs.

Peter Moskos, a former police officer in Baltimore who now works as a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he’s seen a trend in police departments attempting to move away from making “arrests for arrests’ sake.” He credited New England’s largest cities with making policy changes.

“These things don’t just happen,” Moskos said. “Police don’t get acknowledged for the good decisions they make.”

But Moskos admitted there could be many reasons for the decline in arrests. He noted that the 12% decline between 2014 and 2015 followed an uptick in negative attention toward the police after the police-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He said fewer officers on the beat could also be a factor, but added, “I’d take a lean department that is well run over a bloated department with bad leadership.”

Like Providence, the police departments in Worcester and New Haven attributed the decline in arrests to policy decisions and community partnerships.

Worcester Chief Steven M. Sargent highlighted his department’s creation of a crisis intervention team and its program for addiction recovery as one of the leading reasons for the reduction.

“These two units within the department focus on connecting individuals with services and treatment rather than incarceration,” Sargent said.

New Haven Officer David Hartman, the department’s spokesperson, said cops have refocused on walking beats. He said New Haven has also enhanced its intelligence divisions, created a variety of task forces and partnered with Yale University in recent years.

“Partnerships create teams and teamwork produces results,” Hartman said.

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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