Members of the homeless community and advocates from groups that work to help them had a meeting with Mayor Jorge Elorza Tuesday afternoon. Elorza seemed surprised by videos that showed an Officer Morgan talking to Homeless Outreach Worker Megan Smith about the illegal ways in which he harasses the homeless. In the first video, shot near the KFC on North Main St in Providence, Morgan says that if the man panhandling on the meridian does not move, he will be arrested and charged with “failure to move.”
There is no such charge on the books in Providence. When the man panhandling and Smith refused to move, the police officer said, ominously, “I’ll be back” before tearing off in his cruiser, making a dangerous and rather reckless tight turn to do so.
In the second video Elorza was shown, this one shot near the McDonald’s on Broad St, Officer Hernandez talked about telling people they were not allowed to wait at a bus stop. It was obvious that the officer was profiling those waiting as being visibly poor, and that he felt they had no right to sit on a bus stop bench unless they were waiting for a bus.
Another outreach worker told the mayor about one of her clients, a homeless transgender woman who was told by a police officer that “since you’re wearing a nice dress today I’ll give you one hour [to panhandle on the meridian], between 5 and 6 o’clock.”
After the videos were over, Elorza said that the behavior he saw was “inconsistent with the directive I have given the police commissioner. I will see to it that everyone is following my directions.”
Louis, a volunteer with the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, talked about how the police descend on Kennedy Plaza as a large group, with the intention of intimidating and psychologically triggering the homeless. Mama Dread, a member of Occupy Providence who works closely with the homeless in Kennedy Plaza, said that the police routinely intimidate the homeless, by standing very close in groups.
Malchus Mills, of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) asked Elorza pointedly, “Did we go to sleep and wake up in Russia? I don’t like bullies and that’s what the police were being.”
Officers are biased against the “visibly poor” said those in attendance. Race, ethnicity and LGBTQ status can also stir bias. “As a woman doing outreach,” said one woman, “I am more afraid of groups of police than I am of the homeless.”
Elorza said the 60 new officers starting training will receive improved instruction in dealing with the homeless and those suffering from psychological or addiction problems. Those in the room countered that the training cadets receive is too often washed away when the new cops hit the street and older officers teach them to be part of the problem.
The complaint process the public has when reporting police officer misconduct is seriously flawed. Complaining opens up vulnerable people to the possibility of retribution from police officers. If the complaint does somehow manage to be made and to be heard, officers face no serious consequences.
Elorza vowed to look into the complaint process. “If there’s a problem with it, let’s fix it,” said the mayor.
“There are people who want to be much more aggressive against the homeless, and that’s not compassionate,” said Elorza,” possibly referring to Joseph Paolino, a former Mayor of Providence and property owner.
Joe Buchanan of DARE responded, “You’re the mayor. He’s not.”
Before the meeting with Mayor Elorza, Mama Dread led a march from Burnside Park to the Roger Williams University on One Empire St.
Also please note that though I usually run video for such forums, I was specifically told there would be no recording allowed at this meeting.