“The Community Safety Act name itself, the body [of the Providence FOP], the majority, the overwhelming majority, has taken a concern with that,” said Robert Boehm, president of the Providence FOP at last night’s meeting of the CSA Working Group. “It makes it sound, in our eyes, that the community needs this to be safe from the police, which I find insulting. So, I was kind of hoping we could soften the name up… maybe we should combine the name along with the community’s itself and be part of the community.”
“Originally the title was about police accountability and racial profiling or something like that,” countered Working Group member Martha Yager, “and it was changed to this because we felt that it included the police as part of the community… [the name] is actually the exact opposite of how it’s been interpreted.”
Yager noted that the name of the ordinance has been used throughout Providence for a long time. “At this point, taking that back, I just don’t know how reasonable that is.”
This was the last point taken up by the Community Safety Act (CSA) working group at a contentious meeting that breezed through the early parts of the agenda, only to bog down into a lengthy discussion on three substantive points. The first point of deep contention was about the gang database and the criteria used to decide who is included in the database and who is not.
The CSA wants “associations” with gang members removed from the list of permissible criteria. The police, represented by Chief Hugh Clements, argued that people who associate with gang members are more likely to be gang members or victims of gang members. Using associations “maybe can be used to help individuals avoid gangs.”
Boehm, who is a Sergeant on the Providence Police Department as well as the president of the Providence FOP, added that associates of gangs are often used to run tasks and errands for the gang precisely because they are not official members, and therefore better at escaping police notice.
Being listed as a gang member can have dire consequences. As I more fully explained here, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin‘s office can use a 10-year enhancement when someone is charged with a crime. 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. Being identified as a gang member, rightly or wrongly, can now lead to immediate deportation.
Balancing the public safety concerns of stopping the criminal activity of gangs against the public safety concerns of protecting members of the public from being identified as gang members when they are not was the main focus of the meeting. A person’s sibling, cousin, fellow student or sports teammate may be a gang member. Gang members go to movies, clubs, dances and the mall. Finding language that excludes casual or social associations with gang members while allowing for police to note a person’s participation in gang related activity became the crux of the conversation.
Working Group member Justice Gaines noted that what the police are describing as “association” in every example they list is actually “participation in criminal activity.” Working group member Courtney Hawkins suggested that “non-criminal activity” not be counted as association.
However, the issue might not be as simple as finding the right language. “We’ve spent a lot of time finessing this,” said Martha Yager, “I don’t think this level of finesse is out there on the streets. How do we make a firm line here?”
Nick Freeman, manager of policy and research for the Providence City Council, who has been helping to guide the working group through the process, noted that the CSA has many uncontroversial protections regarding the gang database. These features would allow members of the public who feel they have been listed in the gang database in error to appeal and have themselves removed.
Boehm noted that “in 30 years on the job I haven’t had access to or put anyone on” the gang database. Most of the rank and file don’t have access.
This was the second time the Working Group wrestled with this issue. Some progress was made as it appears that each side understood the other better. But the issue was not resolved and is being held over until Thursday night’s meeting.
The second area of contention concerned the part of the CSA that allows members of the public to seek damages if the CSA is violated. Boehm wanted to limit damages only to those cases in which an officer “knowingly and willfully” violated the CSA. Justice Gaines said that the officer’s intent was irrelevant. If a person’s rights under the CSA were violated, that person should be entitled to restitution whether the officer knowingly and willfully violated the ordinance or not.
This portion of the CSA is not about punishing officers, it’s about ensuring plaintiffs can be compensated for violations, said Gaines. Boehm asked that this item be tabled until the next meeting, as he was beginning to understand the intent of the section and needed time to think it through.
This left only the name of the Community Safety Act in question. Providence City Councilor (Ward 11) and working group member Mary Kay Harris drew on her long experience as a community activist working on legislation in the past to put the name of the legislation such as the CSA in perspective. When she was working on the legislation that would become PERA (Providence External Review Authority), it had the working title PERC (Providence External Review Committee).
Like PERC, the CSA was brought to the Providence City Council with the idea of having the City Council “make it a law” said Harris. The CSA will still be the CSA and be part of what this law is, said Harris, but now it is in the hands of the City Council.
Justice Gaines countered that from a public relations perspective, entering into these talks about the CSA and leaving with “something else” doesn’t look like cooperation, it looks like things were lost. “Coming into this, the coalition, we were very upset that we didn’t get our vote at the last meeting because it felt like we were back stabbed, frankly. We came here [to the Working Group] because we want to make sure that this bill works for everyone. I think that if we change something as benign as the name it looks like we’re leaving here with something that’s totally different. I don’t understand why the Community Safety Act feels offensive.”
Gaines could imagine no new title that would change the feelings of the police. “I think that feeling is seated in the community and in the police department. I think that feeling goes much deeper than the title of the ordinance.”
Chief Clements said that he’s heard the name “has become pretty contentious” and noted that if the ordinance and its protections can ultimately be agreed upon and passed, “What does a name mean?”
“I listen to the radio quite a bit,” said Boehm, “and the CSA has become that negative word for a lot of people who look at the struggle that we’re going through with this.” The rank and file FOP sees the CSA as the product of anti-police activists. “Whether or not that’s true,” said Boehm, “it’s the perception. Just like a lot of the stuff inside [of the CSA] we can’t quite see eye to eye on because of the perception of how you [the community] see it and how we [the police] see it. How we see gangs and how you see gangs are two different things. And I can appreciate the fact that you don’t see any harm in the name itself.”
Boehm struggled a bit to find the right words as he continued, “Up to this point, the CSA has been a negative term towards… I’ve been struggling, very very hard, to get our members to move forward with this… This is going to be a hard sell.”
Providence City Councilor (Ward 13) and CSA Working Group Chair Bryan Principe stressed that changing the name would not change the ordinance but might change the public and police perception of the ordinance. Principe stressed that he did not want to lose what was inside the CSA because of the title.
Ultimately any decisions about the name of the ordinance was held over until Thursday’s meeting.
Monday night’s meeting was attended by all members except Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré. Linda Heng, a youth coordinator with PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement) replaced attorney Shannah Kurland in the working group. Kurland resigned her position on Friday, but attended most of the meeting as an observer. Providence City Councilor (Ward 12) and Working Group Vice Chair Terrence Hassett left after 30 minutes of the two hour meeting. Providence City Councilors Sabina Matos (Ward 15) and Michael Correia (Ward 6) observed the meeting for only a few minutes.
The next meeting of the CSA Working Group is scheduled for Thursday, May 25 at 5:30pm on the third floor of the Providence City Hall.
You can watch the two hour meeting here: