Recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, have sparked a national focus on police-community relations. At issue is a number of cases in which unarmed black men have been killed during encounters with white police officers. Rhode Island hasn’t seen this much concern about police-community relations since a black police officer was killed in a friendly-fire incident almost 15 years ago. So how much things have changed?
From the streets of the city’s Mount Hope section, community activist Ray Watson can see how police-community relations have gotten better over the last 10 or 15 years.
Communication with the police leadership has improved significantly. And Watson pointed to how a police supervisor helped to make things better when an officer disrespected a Mount Hope resident: "There was actually an officer who apologized to a resident of the neighborhood, told him, ‘Listen, you know, I was having a bad day that day, but I was out of line. I do apologize. I didn’t mean to come across like that. I hope it doesn’t affect us moving forward.’
Mount Hope is a poor part of the prosperous East Side, and it’s wrestled for years with drug-dealing and periodic outbreaks of violence. Watson, the head of the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, said residents want good interactions with police. Yet despite improvements, he said some officers still put a presumption of guilt on Mount Hope’s mostly black residents.
"Every once in a while they’ll come into the neighborhood here and they’ll, in my opinion harass someone to see if they’ve got guns," Watson said. "And it’s that same sort of situation – after you’ve harassed and they don’t have any guns – ‘Oh, stay out trouble.’ I was never in trouble to stay out of trouble. You’re the ones who are causing the trouble and now after you’ve caused it, you’re telling me to stay out of trouble? It’s very disheartening.
Last week, Watson and about 70 other people demonstrated outside the Providence Public Safety Complex. They were protesting plans to discipline a black firefighter, Khari O'Connor, who was seen raising his fist during an earlier protest.
Like other cities, Providence has been the scene of protests sparked by what happened in Ferguson and Staten Island. Rhode Island hasn’t seen since this kind of concern about police-community relations since the January 2000 death of a black police officer, Cornel Young Jr. Off duty at the time, Young was shot and killed by two white colleagues who said they didn’t recognize him when Young pulled a gun while intervening in a dispute. A gubernatorial commission sparked by his death made more than 70 recommendations intended to reduce racial profiling and other inequities.
But almost 15 years on, Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union head Steve Brown said the state is still dealing with many of the same issues.
"That’s one of the saddest things about all that’s going on – every time a Ferguson occurs, there’s often a lack of perspective that there’s nothing new here. This is a problem that has existed for a very long time," Brown said, "and unfortunately, there is an immediate response that something needs to be done. Some superficial measurers usually end up being taken, But in terms of long-term change, very little seems to happen, and I think that's why this goes on over and over again."
Reports by the ACLU have identified disproportionately high rates of traffic stops for black and Latino motorists, and disproportionately high suspension rates for black students.
Police Chief Hugh Clements said he's receptive to hearing concerns from the ACLU and others about racial profiling. Clements also pointed to how the Providence department recently obtained a national accreditation earned by less than five percent of the nation’s law enforcement agencies, from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agenices. He says the way in Providence ranked high on almost 200 different standards reflects the professionalism of the department.
"We certainly do not promote or allow racial bias policing," Clements said. "However, we do target hot spots. We do target high-crime areas. We target individuals who are prone to violence."
Outreach by the police and the department's accreditation reflect how the Providence PD has come a long way from when it was mired under the cloud of an exam-testing scandal and other problems during Buddy Cianci's last tenure in office.
Clements said a little under 25 percent of the 453 officers in the department -- in a city where minorities compose most of the population -- represent minority groups. He said efforts to have a more representative department have been limited by how there's only been one police academy since he became chief in January 2012.
Providence NAACP President Jim Vincent praises Clements, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, and State Police Colonel Steven O'Donnell for regularly reaching out to minority communities.
But in reflecting on the 2000 death of Cornel Young Jr., Vincent says he expected more progress.
"It’s almost a tale of two cities," Vincent said. "I’m disappointed we’re not further along, but I’m very happy we have certain people in place in terms of the highest levels that I think are the right people to be there. They’re there, but I would have thought that racial profiling and harassment and disrespect – that we wouldn’t have to be talking about this in Providence 15 years later."
Vincent, Brown, Watson and other critics of the status quo say passing a stronger anti-racial profiling law is the way to raise accountability and improve police-community relations. Efforts to strengthen that law have languished for years, in part due to opposition from law enforcement.
Police groups over the last year have put their support behind a new version of the racial profiling law. It’s meant to balance community concerns about stops and searches with those of police about officer-safety. The measure was introduced in the Senate by Senator Harold Metts (D-Providence), although it failed to find a sponsor in the House. The outlook for the legislation remains unclear in the upcoming General Assembly session.
[This is an expanded version of the radio form of this story]