The third meeting of the Community Safety Act (CSA) Working Group got into the more contentious elements of the ordinance. At issue is the so-called “gang database” used by the Providence Police Department (PPD) to track gang members and affiliations. Working group member Shannah Kurland, a community lawyer for CSA coalition members noted that the criteria used to determine who is and who isn’t a gang member by the PPD results in a “mystery process” that community members have no access to.
Presently, the PPD keeps the gang database criteria secret from the public. PrSYM (Providence Student Youth Movement) has been asking for the criteria for seven years. The CSA was written without knowledge of what the criteria was, and in writing language to curtail the misuse of the gang database, the authors made their best guesses as to how the PPD determines who is and who is not a gang member.
Being listed as a gang member can have dire consequences. Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin‘s office can use a 10-year enhancement when someone is charged with a crime. For instance, if the charge carries a maximum ten year sentence, the Attorney General’s office can ask for 20 years if the person charged is a member of a criminal gang. For someone listed as a gang member in error, this is a very dire consequence and could compel an innocent person to make a deal rather than face the possibility of a twenty year sentence.
Also, under President Donald Trump‘s executive order on immigration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can use the fact that an undocumented person is listed as a gang member to immediately deport them. Under what Working Group member Martha Yager called the new ICE Age, at least one DACA student in Rhode Island has been deported for gang affiliation, she said. The gang affiliation noted in this person’s case was ten years old. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) allows some undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation. Being identified as a gang member, rightly or wrongly, can now lead to immediate deportation.
With these considerations in mind, the CSA states that “No police officer shall identify any individual as a member of a gang in any list or database maintained by any law enforcement agency, nor in any written notes, reports, memoranda or other document, without identifying criteria for inclusion on a so-called ‘gang list’ or ‘gang database’ that apply to that individual.”
Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements said that officers objected to the “micro-managing feel” of monitoring how they write their notes. He asked that written notes be scratched. Attorney Kurland countered that as a defense lawyer, the officer’s notes are supposed to be turned over to defense as part of discovery. The notes have legal value, and if they identify someone as part of a gang, all of the problems noted above could come into play.
Nick Freeman, manager of policy and research for the Providence City Council, suggested adding a line saying that an officer can use the term “possible gang member” or even “gang member?” when taking notes on a situation. Though some language was agreed to, many of the differences over the gang database and criteria for inclusion remain.
Chief Clements dug deeper into the CSA and noted that the ordinance banned “affiliation” as criteria for being in a gang. The community members advocating for the CSA maintain that being associated with a gang member does not make that person a gang member. One example is a pair of brothers, one in a gang, one not. Clements conceded that such a relationship is not enough to brand someone as a gang member, but countered that repeated associations with gang members counts as a “point or two-points towards” inclusion. Clements wanted the language banning “associations” to come out of the CSA.
Kurland and Yager responded that they had already negotiated away other criteria such as “physical characteristics” in order to keep “associations” in. They argued that changing the CSA in such a way would be substantial (as well as unfair) and possibly send the approval of the CSA back to square one.
This issue has yet to be fully resolved.
Other issues were resolved with minor adjustments to their wording for clarity.
The other standout issue concerned PERA (Providence External Review Authority). PERA is a civilian review board that is presently inactive. Without PERA, there is no way to move the CSA forward or to enforce the ordinance. CSA Working Group Chair Bryan Principe assured the group members that the city budget would have funding for PERA included.
Per the CSA, PERA will have the authority to audit the gang list and review the criteria used by the PPD in compiling the list. The criteria used by the PPD would become public information. Chief Clements said that he would get the gang database criteria to members of the working group.
Since PERA is currently inactive, the pathway towards getting PERA to the point where it can do the job of reviewing the gang database and police conduct needs to be worked out.
Absent from this meeting were Vice-Chair Terrance Hassett, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, Courtney Hawkins and Providence FOP President Robert Boehm, who was called away for a family emergency.
You can watch the full meeting here: