In the end, common ground was found and every instance of contentious wording in the draft ordinance was settled via unanimous agreement by members of the CSA Working Group. The final version of the Community Safety Act (CSA) was officially approved and will be ready to be voted on by the full Providence City Council on June 1.
There were five final issues to be dealt with. These were all issues that had been confronted in earlier meetings, talked through exhaustively, then set aside for future consideration because of the difficulty the working group faced in resolving them.
First up was the name of the ordinance itself. At the last meeting Robert Boehm, president of the Providence FOP and Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements attested to how the name of the ordinance was considered insulting to the rank and file police officers of the Providence Police Department. At last night’s meeting Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, who was not present at that last two meetings, said, “symbolically, it’s been an issue” with the officers under his command.
Linda Heng, who replaced Attorney Shannah Kurland as a community member appointee on the working group, recalled the words of Providence City Councillor Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) from the last meeting. Harris said that whenever a piece of legislation is crafted by the community and turned over to the city council, the city council renames it, in a sense making it their own. Heng suggested that the working group simply allow the city council to choose a name for the ordinance. In short order this was agreed to.
Next up was a minor change to the language in the act regarding police video recordings. The language was amended for clarity, and had no effect on the intent of the ordinance.
At the last meeting the working group spent over an hour discussing the gang database and the criteria used by the police to determine who is and who is not a gang member. The CSA is written to exclude the use of “associations” as a factor in determining gang membership. Chief Clements countered that “associations” is an important criteria. No member of the public would find themselves on the gang database simply because they were associated with a gang member. “It’s a weighted system,” said Clements, “association would get you a very low number.”
Nick Freeman, manager of policy and research for the Providence City Council, who has been instrumental in guiding the working group through these meetings, suggested language that would ban the use of associations as a criteria “unless that association occurred while the gang members are engaged in gang or criminal activity or any substantially equivalent factor.”
Clements said that “for the record, I’m satisfied.” But the community representation on the working group was not.
Community member Justice Gaines pointed out that merely hanging out and “smoking weed” would technically be considered criminal activity, but should not warrant inclusion in the database as a gang member. Community member Martha Yager asked what “substantially equivalent” factors would be considered. Without knowledge of the gang database criteria, the community doesn’t know if inclusion on the gang database is fair or not.
The fact that other cities use “association” as a criteria for putting a person on their gang database is irrelevant, said Gaines. “The idea is to make Providence different from other cities.”
“I think it’s important, in public safety, in the city, to allow for association,” said Chief Clements, but he let the issue go. “Association” would no longer be a gang database criteria.
Attention was then turned back to the written notes of police officers. Technically the written notes kept by police officers are evidence and can be turned over to the lawyers for use in criminal trials. In practice, this almost never happens. Still, the CSA, as written, would prohibit an officer from writing in their notes that a person is a member of a gang.
Boehm objected because notes are closely related to the personal thoughts of officers. “My notes are my notes,” said Boehm, later observing that “If we restrict officers as to what they write in their notes, what’s next? I can’t ‘think’ they are in a gang?”
As the conversation seemed to reach an impasse, Freeman suggested leaving the issue unresolved, with a note to the city council leaving the decision in their hands. Yager did not want to do leave the work unfinished, and most of the working group seemed to agree.
Ultimately it was decided that what is in the notes was not as important as what was being entered into the gang database. The written notes of officers would be left alone, but the people charged with entering information into the gang database would be prohibited from identifying a gang member in their written notes unless that individual met the criteria for inclusion.
The last item to be discussed concerned compensation for those whose rights under the ordinance were violated. Boehm and Clements were concerned that officers might be subject to penalties for innocent breaches of the act and wanted officers to be subject only if they “knowingly and willfully” violated the CSA.
Last time this issue came up, Gaines suggested that the intent was not to punish officers, but to compensate those whose rights were violated. The intent of the officers is irrelevant.
It was quickly decided that the City of Providence would be liable for damages for violations irrespective of the officer’s intent, but that individual officers, if they are sued for violating the CSA, would only be liable if they knowingly and willfully violated the act.
After the agreed upon changes are written up, the CSA will be ready to be presented to the full city council. There was brief discussion as to what kind of report to submit to the city council. Freeman asked that the working group authorize him to write a short cover letter outlining the changes, and once more there was universal agreement.
There was a feeling of great relief in the room, but there was also considerable anxiety. The last time the CSA was considered ready to go, it all fell apart in the last few minutes, leading to a month long delay and the creation of the working group. At the end of this meeting, no one felt ready to party. Instead, everyone was searching for signs of future trouble. “I am very nervous,” said one person to me, “I don’t know what is going to happen.”
Unlike previous meetings of the CSA Working Group, in which four or five people may have showed up to observe the open meetings, last night’s meeting filled the room with at least 35 members of the public, representing DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement), SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice), and AFSC-SENE (American Friends Service Committee – South Eastern New England).
Working group members and Providence City Councilors Terrence Hassett (Ward 12) and Mary Kay Harris were absent.
You can watch the final meeting of the CSA Working Group here: