With Providence police reform ordinance coming, ‘investigatory powers’ of citizen review board questioned

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A major component of Providence’s police reform ordinance that takes effect Jan. 1 is still under scrutiny, as officials are split over how much power a citizen oversight board should have when it comes to investigating the police department.

The unpaid nine-member board, known as the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), was first created in 2002 to review police policies and procedures in the wake of the 2001 shooting death of Sgt. Cornel Young Jr., but it has been inactive for more than a decade.

However, passage of the Providence Community-Police Relations Act (PCPRA) is set to breathe new life into the dormant board, giving it the ability to investigate complaints related to violations of the ordinance, review and make recommendations on union contracts and decide whether certain individuals should be removed from the police department’s gang database.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said this week he supports PERA having oversight over the police department, but he is calling for the City Council to strip the board of its existing investigatory authority, which includes subpoena power.

“I am asking that the ordinance be practical and useful, and with investigatory powers it doesn’t make sense and will be problematic,” Pare told Eyewitness News. “This ordinance hasn’t worked in over a decade and without changes to address the investigatory powers, it will be the same results as in the past.”

Mayor Jorge Elorza, who is traveling in England this week, has refused to say whether he agrees with Pare. Victor Morente, the mayor’s press secretary, declined to answer repeated questions about whether the administration supports PERA’s investigatory authority this week, only saying that Elorza “trusts the legislative process to yield appropriate reforms.”

“Mayor Elorza supports civilian oversight – one of the most important elements of the reforms,” he said. “Given that PERA has been dormant for over 10 years, it’s not unreasonable for the council to consider whether changes need to be made to ensure its success. We encourage the council to impanel PERA so that it can begin its important functions and work collaboratively with community stakeholders to address challenges, should they arise.”

The City Council Ordinance Committee approved minor changes to the PERA ordinance Monday evening, but kept all of the board’s powers intact. The full council is expected to consider the changes later this month. Councilman Luis Aponte said Tuesday he believes the council has the eight votes it needs maintain PERA’s powers.

The council is also expected to make eight appointments to the board this month. The mayor gets to appoint one member. The budget for the current fiscal year sets aside $302,000 to fund PERA activities, including hiring a director.

A coalition of community activists who support both the PCPRA and PERA sent a letter to the mayor last week warning that they will “remain vigilant against any attempts by any official from your administration to take advantage of this moment to undermine the intent or potential of the” PCPRA.

“You probably do not have direct experience with the existing internal civilian complaint procedure, but we do,” the letter states. “And we assure you – there is absolutely no way that a process completely controlled by the same police from whom we need protection can substitute.”

PERA’s investigatory authority was challenged by the police union in 2006 when it initiated a misconduct investigation against an officer, but a Superior Court judge ruled that the board did not conflict with a state law known as the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.

The state Supreme Court also sided with PERA, meaning the city would likely need to change the existing ordinance to remove any of the board’s current power.

The letter, which is signed by the executive directors of the Providence Youth Student Movement, Direct Action for Rights and Equality and R.I. Jobs with Justice as well as Linda Heng, Justice Gaines and Martha Yager, asks Elorza to commit “that no one in your administration will support, publicly or behind the scenes, any changes that reduce the basic authority and reach of PERA.”

“Such action would not just cut off PERA’s hands or feet, but would more accurately cut its heart out,” the letter states.

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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