At the May 1 Providence City Council Ordinance Committee meeting, the CSA Working Group was completely reinvented. Instead of working on the policies to implement the Community Safety Act (CSA), the working group was now going to attempt to bridge the gap between advocates and the Providence FOP.
After the initial shock over the Providence City Council tabling the Community Safety Act (CSA) at their April 27 meeting passed, activists and opponents began planning their next steps. This post is a look at some of the actions taken since that emotional night. The CSA is a proposed, community created ordinance that, among many other things, prohibits the police from profiling not just by race but expands the list of protections to include gender identity, gender expression and housing status.
Why the CSA was tabled remains a little unclear. Providence Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President Robert Boehm wrote a letter to the city council listing police objections to the CSA, not the least of which is the name of the ordinance. “The title of the ordinance itself, the ‘Community Safety Act,’ is offensive,” reads the letter, “Its content implies that the community needs to protect itself from the police.” Boehm went on to list nine major issues the police have with the ordinance.
Immediately following the meeting that tabled the CSA it was realized that though the CSA itself had not passed, legislation to introduce a CSA Working Group had been introduced and referred to the Providence City Council Ordinance Committee. This working group, originally conceived as a way of enacting the policies outlined in the CSA, now more ominously seemed like a way for opponents to modify and undermine the ordinance, especially given the content of the FOP letter. There were no community members in the proposed working group to protect the CSA, just police leadership and city hall appointees, some of whom seemed, in the eyes of advocates, to be openly hostile to the intent of the ordinance.
That needed to change.
In the meantime, City Council members who voted to table the CSA found themselves on the defensive. Rumors continue to swirl that those city council members who voted to table the ordinance may pick up primary challengers ahead of the 2018 elections.
Three city councilors made public statements in the immediate aftermath.
Councilor Seth Yurdin (Ward 1), who was absent for the vote to table the CSA, sent me an email declaring his surprise at the behavior of the City Council. Yurdin said he still supported the CSA and hoped the “additional time will be used to address any good faith misconceptions” about the CSA held by the rank and file police officers in Providence.
City Councilor Terrance Hassett (Ward 12) who chairs the Providence City Council Ordinance Committee took to Facebook in a sometimes confusing burst of explanation and defense. (Note: I made some small corrections to spelling and punctuation.)
I can clarify my position and that of others. The CSA is not dead. As Chair of Ordinances I did my best to hear and review as other committee members have done. I voted yes in committee and once on the floor of the full Council. However, the FOP, which has admitted not providing more, in depth testimony has caused uncertainty. Given that, I supported tabling the matter, support Council President’s offer and amendment to advise the Committee to review and report back by Jun 1st.
“It’s not in Swan Point Cemetery. It remains active. Problems exist and need to be resolved. Just because some people, who have little respect for a Council Meeting of the process of government pack the room think thats the answer, they are wrong. Pictures on Facebook about throwing bricks at police? By advocates for CSA? Isn’t that contradictory?
“I support equalized measured response but I will never accept or tolerate hate for police just to get something passed.
“I voted yes twice. Have reservations about some pieces of the ordinance. If given the choice from advocates on an ordinance I voted yes on twice, after bullshit pictures criticizing my police force, protest at the Boyle Funeral Home.
“This can be resolved. Not by disrespect for police or ignorant and way out of line in City Council protests. You will never grow a safe and reliable environmental garden by not caring for the farmer. Wednesday you reduced your care. Legislation doesn’t spring up: it is nurtured and amended to become the crop that was planted and grown well. Hysteria doesn’t mean and will never result in the way you want it in the mean way you want it.
“Lets try to make it better.I voted for it twice. After Wednesday… I [am] pissed. Im trying yet I’m criticized. Unless this remains fluid for something acceptable I will vote no and [will be] joined by many. Still hopeful. I’m not mean, just fair. Join that and get it done.”
On April 30 Councilor Samuel Zurier (Ward 2) explained his vote to table the ordinance in a letter to his constituents.
In a special meeting on Thursday night, the City Council voted to table the Community Safety Act (CSA) for 30 days. This followed a vote in favor of initial passage the previous week. Eight members who voted for initial passage (including me) voted in favor of the motion to table. I took this vote in response to a direct request from Police Chief Hugh Clements. He said the rank and file officers found the current version to be demoralizing, and if it were imposed without further consideration, it may damage much of the Department’s successful current work. His assessment was consistent with a letter issued by the President of the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP letter contained some inaccuracies and intemperate language; however, it was the Chief’s concerns (rather than the letter) that caused a major shift in my understanding of the Police Department’s position vis a vis the CSA. [emphasis mine]
“More specifically, during the week before the CSA reached the City Council, the Commissioner of Public Safety (who supervises the Police Chief and the Fire Chief) announced he supported the current draft. Based on that statement, I assumed that the Chief of Police also supported it, and I assumed the Chief could gain the cooperation and support of the rank and file. When Chief Clements spoke to me on Wednesday night, he said the current draft, if approved, would create morale issues which could impact the Police Department’s community relations programs that currently work well. While our city’s police-community relations can be improved, Providence is a very different place from Chicago or Baltimore, and a large reason for that is the leadership of Chief Clements. Because the CSA, by its terms, will not go into effect until January, I decided that I would support giving the Chief a limited window of 30 days to propose modifications that would allow him and the Department’s rank and file to give the new legislation their full support.
“With that said, this was not an easy vote, because it did not fully validate the hard work and many improvements that community members, City Council staff and City Council members contributed to the original CSA. For example, the original draft mandated civilian review and approval of the Police Department budget and labor contracts. These mandates would violate the City Charter and State law. In my early meetings with supporters, they said I could vote to approve the mandates, and let a court decide at a later time whether they were illegal. Had the final version of the CSA contained these mandates, I could not have voted for it even once, because that would have violated my oath of office to uphold the Home Rule Charter. Fortunately, both were removed through the legislative process, so I did not have to face that difficult issue. This experience demonstrates an important distinction between supporting the general principles of the CSA and the demands some make for blanket, unconditional approval of every specific provision or word or phrase it contains. I remain supportive of the general principles of the CSA, and I am willing to give Chief Clements a chance to propose alternatives that will retain and enhance those basic principles while broadening acceptance within the Police Department, so that its passage will be compatible with the Police Department’s currently successful programs while bringing about the successful implementation of valuable changes.”
Rancor against the city council members who voted to table the CSA perhaps hit a high point when Councilor Jo-Ann Ryan (Ward 5) was heckled at an Arbor Day tree planting event the next day.
Further complicating the CSA Working Group legislation was a letter from the ACLU of Rhode Island explaining that the legislation, as written, violated the Open Meetings Act. The letter was received on the same day the Ordinance Committee was due to take up the bill.
There can be no question that this working group, once established, will be a public body subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA). We are therefore perplexed by a sentence contained within the resolution stating that the working group ‘shall be permitted to enter executive session.’ We are perplexed for two reasons.
“First, as a public body, the working group will have all of the rights and responsibilities of every other public body under the OMA, including posting timely agenda notices and allowing members of the public to record meetings. It is difficult to understand why the right to enter executive session –assuming the criteria for holding one under the statute are met – is the only OMA matter singled out by the resolution.It strikes us as an encouragement to the working group to meet in secret.
“That leads to our second point. Frankly, we are unable to think of anything the working group might discuss that would fit within any of the OMA exemptions allowing for executive sessions. To the contrary: The working group’s mission of recommending how to help ‘achieve proper implementation and enforcement’ of the CSA is precisely the sort of policy discussion that is meant to occur in open session, not behind closed doors.
“Because we fear the current language might give working group members a misleading impression, we urge that this sentence be deleted. But if the issue is to be addressed at all, we would suggest that the resolution instead specify the opposite – that the working group ‘shall not be permitted to enter executive session.’”
At the May 1 Providence City Council Ordinance Committee meeting,the CSA Working Group was completely reinvented. The problematic language the ACLU objected to was taken out and one additional person was added to the group, a community member appointed by the Providence City Council President Luis Aponte. The CSA Working Group was given a new purpose as well: identify “issues of concern and problems, identify proposed solutions, propose and create recommendations, take all appropriate evidence and testimony and provide a written review and report” to the Ordinance Committee.
Councilor Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) successfully lobbied for the inclusion of three community members rather than just one and that amendment was swiftly adopted. Harris is a major contributor to and advocate for the CSA.
Ordinance Chair Hassett said that he had a brief conversation with the FOP President Boehm about the police union’s missed opportunities for input on the CSA. According to Hassett, Boehm conceded that the Providence FOP had made a mistake in not engaging with the CSA process when they had the chance.
Hassett also said, referring to the CSA, “This is not going to get watered down. I can say that with big eyes.”
Another issue brought up at the meeting was section 409 of the Home Rule Charter. Section 409 says that “no ordinance may be so amended before its second passage as to change its original purpose.” Hassett said that in his twenty years on the council, that rule has always been interpreted as “significant” change, and that he didn’t think any changes made to the CSA would be in violation of the rule.
“On June 1st we cast our votes and it becomes law,” said Hassett.
“Maybe,” said Harris.
“No,” said Hassett, “I think it’s going to go. That’s my view.”
You can listen to that meeting here:
After the Ordinance Committee meeting Linda, a community organizer from PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement) and Sophia Wright from DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) caught up with the May Day March at Armory Park to report on the meeting. They assured the crowd that Councilor Mary Kay Harris would hold Council President Aponte accountable for making good choices as to what members of the community would have a seat at the CSA Working Group.
“We did win something small, right?” asked Wright, “Which is that our voices get to be at the table. But that should not have been a fight in the first place.”
Wright said that the community was committed to passing the CSA, not a watered down version.
The next day, May 2, one of the strongest advocates for the CSA on the city council, Kevin Jackson (Ward 3), lost a recall election in a landslide. Jackson had been indicted by a grand jury for five counts, including felony embezzlement, unrelated to his work on the CSA.
Then, on May 10, the day scheduled for the first CSA Working Group meeting, Providence City Council President Luis Aponte was indicted on two counts of embezzlement. Despite the fact that Aponte called for the vote and voted affirmatively to table the CSA, he is still considered a supporter of the CSA by advocates who are counting on him to shepherd the legislation through the city council and to Mayor Elorza’s desk. As of this writing, despite calls from Mayor Elorza and five city council members to step down, Aponte remains city council president.
The CSA Working Group passed by the city council on May 4 and signed into law by Mayor Elorza on May 5 has eleven members:
- Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Paré (or his designee)
- Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements (or his designee)
- Robert Boehm, President of the Providence FOP (or his designee)
- Assistant City Solicitor Kate Sabatini, the designee of City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana
- Chairman of the Committee on Ordinances, Terrence Hassett
- An appointee selected by Mayor Jorge Elorza: Courtney Hawkins
- Two city council members chosen by Council President Luis Aponte: Mary Kay Harris and Bryan Principe (Ward 13)
- Three community members chosen by Council President Luis Aponte: Justice Gaines, Shannah Kurland and Martha Yager
The first meeting of the CSA Working Group was organizational in nature. In short order the group elected City Councilor Bryan Principe as chair and City Councilor Terrence Hassett as vice-chair.
Principe assigned what he called “homework” to everyone at the table. Principe wanted everyone to read the CSA, note their concerns, and come ready to dig in and address the concerns. Hassett helpfully suggested that the Working Group members come prepared to tackle the “tough” issues first. Chief Clements opined that there were many “interpretational issues” to be discussed.
Group member Justice Gaines asked if Robert Boehm, president of the Providence FOP, would outline some of his concerns now, so that the community members of the Working Group could be ready to address those concerns at the next meeting, but Principe decided to wait until the next meeting to begin substantive discussions.
There was a brief back and forth between Attorneys Shannah Kurland and Kate Sabatini about whether or not section 409 of the Home Rule Charter would affect the ways in which the CSA could be changed without sending the CSA “back to the beginning.” Principe hoped the attorneys might bring more clarity to that issue at a future meeting. You can watch the entire meeting here:
And that brings us to today.
The next meeting of the CSA Working Group is on May 15 at 5:30pm at the Providence City Hall. It is expected that this meeting will dig into the issues expressed by the Providence FOP and Chief Clements. The meeting is open to the public.