Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said his biggest concern was “suppression of evidence.” Paré was speaking before the Providence City Council Ordinance Committee, which was hearing public testimony on the Community Safety Act (CSA). Unlike every other person who provided testimony in the packed City Council chamber Monday night, Paré was not yet ready to support passage.
“If this ordinance is passed,” said Paré, “and there’s violations of this ordinance, my biggest concern is in the prosecution before the criminal court, in the criminal justice system, if there’s suppression of that ordinance, as a result of some of these violations, it’s a huge concern, losing evidence for criminal prosecution.”
In other words, if the police violate the provisions of the CSA, the evidence they collect will not be admissible in court. Among Paré’s concerns were the prohibition against pretext stops, which the Supreme Court has ruled legal. Paré called pretext stops a “tool in the toolbox of law enforcement.” Pretext stops allow police officers to pull motorists over for minor traffic violations and allow officers to search the vehicle for drugs or other contraband.
Paré also did not want to enact changes in the “gang database.” The CSA would allow people to find out if they were entered into the gang database and allow people to challenge their inclusion if they feel they have been entered wrongly. “The language that is before you makes it very cumbersome in our ability to identify those who are causing violence, the police officers know who they are and they share that information,” said Paré.
Paré said he felt the department could “work through” the concerns but would prefer to makes changes through new policy, not new law.
Another contentious issue for Paré was the section of the CSA dealing with police translation services. The CSA mandates that the police must use a translator and not rely on friends and family to interpret for non-English speaking people in non-emergency situations. In other words, when there is time to wait for an official translator, get an official translator. Paré did not feel the language in the CSA is quite right on translation. “It ties the hands of our ability to investigate…”
Paré noted there is no fiscal note attached to the CSA, so the total cost of its implementation is unknown. The bill also includes attorney fees for those who sue the city over violations of the CSA and win, which Paré expressed concerns about.
Over 500 people packed the Providence City Hall Monday night in support of the CSA. Kevin Jackson (Ward 3) said that in his 22 years as a Providence City Councilor, other than a hearing held at a school, there’s never been as many people in attendance as there was Monday night. Eighteen speakers spoke in favor of passing the CSA
The full Ordinance Committee was in present for the meeting, Chair Terrence Hassett (Ward 12) and committee members Jo-Ann Ryan (Ward 5), Bryan Principe (Ward 13), Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) and Carmen Castillo (Ward 9). Also attending were Jackson, Michael Correira (Ward 6), Sabina Matos (Ward 15) and Council President Luis Aponte (Ward 10). State Representative John Lombardi (Democrat, District 8, Providence) was on hand to observe.
Sophia Wright of DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) reviewed the history of the CSA. Prior to the development of the CSA community organizations stepped away from the process that resulted in the Comprehensive Police Relationship Act of 2015 “because the folks at the table were not uplifting the voices of the community,” said Wright.
Around 2013 people started to strategize a City Ordinance. A year was spent researching policies around the country and meeting to discuss issues. Eventually the CSA was introduced by former City Council President Michael Solomon in June 2014. In October 2014 Jorge Elorza, then a candidate for Mayor of Providence, said he supported 10 of the 12 provisions of the CSA.
Since then, in conversation with the police and the city council, the CSA has been revised. The present document represents years of work.
Vanessa Flores-Maldonado leads the Step-Up Coalition which is tasked with getting the CSA passed. The Community Safety Act is about safety, said Flores-Maldonado. “We have made compromises. We’ve made a lot of compromises… but you have to remember we are compromising our safety, and that is dangerous to a lot of us in this community.”
Missing from the CSA right now are things like gender searches, the right of a person to be searched by an officer of the same-sex, said Flores-Maldonado. This is an important protection for “the trans and gender non-conforming people in our community,” said Flores-Maldonado.
Another issue is the language regarding collaboration with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). “Which is ridiculous, because we’re currently living in a political landscape in which you have ICE going up and down neighborhoods, schools, employment areas, trying to round up as many undocumented folks as they possibly can.”
As for Paré’s concerns, “The point of this ordinance is to protect our communities,” said Flores-Maldonado, “the point is not to make the police feel comfortable.” Turning to Paré, Flores-Maldonado said, “I’m not sorry if it makes your job more difficult, I want my people to be safe.”
Steven Dy is a coordinator with PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement). He read a letter of support from law professor Andrew Horwitz in support of the CSA.
Daniel, of PrYSM talked about the gang database, which he characterized as a tool the police use to profile and discriminate against communities of color for years.
Steven Brown of the ACLU of Rhode Island spoke in support of the CSA.
Jessica is a social worker who spoke about the health implications of the CSA. “There is empirical research that shows that experiencing daily, regular discrimination and racism in your every day life can begin the onset and exasperation of mental health issues.”
Joseph Buchanan is the vice president of DARE. He made the compelling argument that the people have a right to determine how they should be policed.
Wallace is a thirty year resident of South Providence. He has seen first hand the way police profile people of color for “unnecessary” traffic stops.
Eduardo Sandoval, interpreted by Sophia Wright, spoke on the importance of translation services for accuracy. He also spoke about protecting city residents from ICE by passing the CSA.
Peter is studying to be a human rights lawyer, and he comes from the Ukraine, where the police often engage in torture. He is in support of the CSA. In response to Paré, Peter said “the reason why we suppress evidence is to deter future police misconduct. We do it to ensure that police comply with the Constitution.”
Former Superior Court Judge Stephen Fortunado made a strong case against compliance with ICE. Not only will the Trump administration be unable to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities, said Fortunado, complying with ICE may put local law enforcement at risk of lawsuits since they will be acting at times without legal court orders.
Justice Gaines spoke about being a trans woman and the difficulty she has when interacting with the police. Gaines said that visibly trans people are often challenged about their gender. When Gaines protested TD Bank‘s involvement with funding the Dakota Access Pipeline in November of last year, she was arrested, searched and detained as a man. She went to the protest without makeup or jewelry because “I knew that even if I was dressed femininely, police officers would still treat me as a man, and I would have no recourse to challenge that.”
AJ Methe is a social worker and trans masculine. He spoke in support of a person’s right to express a gender preference of the officer conducting searches. “This is a really important part of the Community Safety Act, as we look to find ways to protect trans people, who are much more likely to be harassed by law enforcement,” said Methe.
Fred Ordonez is the executive director of DARE. He spoke about the translation services and the gang database. When Commissioner Paré said that the language in the CSA is “cumbersome” regarding the gang database, that’s, “Hard for us to hear because all we want is due process,” said Ordonez, “due process is cumbersome. We just need a probable cause, a reasonable suspicion, something factual for identifying somebody or stopping somebody.”
Attorney Shannah Kurland said that the concerns expressed by Commissioner Paré are new. The ordinance has been in discussion for years, and Paré brought up the suppression of evidence concern 2-3 weeks ago, and never brought that concern directly to the community.
As for pretext stops, said Kurland, “the Supreme Court also allowed slavery (still does). The Supreme Court also allows discrimination. Just because the Supreme Court allows something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for our community.”
Kurland addressed translation, gender searches, pretext stops and policy versus ordinance when it comes to protecting civil rights.
Paré’s promise to address many of the concerns the CSA covers through changes in policy rings hollow, said Kurland, since way back in April 2016 the police promised to provide alternative language for some of the CSA and never did. “So how are we going to trust them to come up with a policy in time to protect the rights of people who need their rights protected?
Last minute suggestions for changes to the ordinance from Paré have come too late, said Kurland. The ordinance is three years old and the police have had ample opportunity for input. The police have yet to follow up with the community from a July 2015 meeting, maintained Kurland.
Providence City Councilor Kevin Jackson has been a staunch supporter of the CSA. “This is historic legislation,” said Jackson, “and historic legislation is difficult and hard to vote yes for because you’re changing the way society has always expected society to operate.”
As for pretext stops, “We just want to improve upon them,” said Jackson, “This is where racial minorities are racially profiled the most.”
As for the gang database, said Jackson, the police “don’t even have a criteria right now… so I don’t understand how that can be cumbersome.”
“I ask my colleagues to stand with me and make sure we listen to the community. The community needs to know, once and for all… that we support them. I say to the police: If you cannot serve our community, therefore you cannot protect them.”
Curt Columbus of Trinity Rep spoke in favor of the CSA.
Peter Glantz, CEO of Imaginary Entertainment spoke for the Providence arts community in supporting the CSA.
There has been no date set yet for the Ordinance Committee to vote on the CSA, which, if passed, would bring the ordinance to the full city council for a vote. If passed out of the full city council, the CSA will need the signature of Mayor Elorza and will then go in to effect in January 2018.