After the release of a video showing a Texas traffic stop that escalates into an arrest for Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was later found dead in a prison cell, some Rhode Islanders say they are disturbed, but not surprised. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison has our story.
In a patch of shade across the street from Pawtucket City Hall, Dwayne Adams sighs deeply and says yes, he has heard about Sandra Bland.
“Am I surprised about the cops doing something like this? No,” Adams said. “Because they’re the police and they can do whatever they want to do.”
Adams speaks from personal experience. He was once accused of robbing a bank next door to his home in Providence. Although he says he’d never been arrested before, the officers thought he fit the description of the African-American suspect.
“Put it this way, I was in the police station for 15 hours of my time. 15 hours for what? Sitting in the jail cell for no charges, nothing was ever brung against me." Adams remembered. "When it was time to leave the officer says to me next time he’ll buy me a cup of coffee for wasting my time."
After an experience like that, Adams says you live with mixed feelings about people in uniform. He gestures toward his young step-son.
“Him and my kids, I always tell them the cops are not bad. If you need help and mommy and daddy can’t help, you always make sure you go to the police. I never tell my kids that the police are bad, the police are not good I never do that. “
Waiting for the bus to take her home to Central Falls, Liberian native Frances Davis says she’s no longer certain she can trust the police. After all of the recent stories about police shootings and violence involving minorities in other states, she feels afraid.
“Because Rhode Island, the cops are bad everywhere,” said Davis. “Cops are the same.”
"Oh yeah, for sure, I've seen it,” said Pawtucket resident Diane Harris, who describes witnessing police hassle people on the street.
“Just somebody’s getting out of jail, they get picked up, slammed into cars, it’s just crazy,” Harris said.
Harris believes law enforcement needs better training so they can avoid confrontations like the one that happened in the arrest of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for changing lanes without signaling, got into a heated exchange with the officer and later died in jail.
“I understand that they’re risking their lives, but they’re supposed to be serving the community and protecting. Where’s the protecting when the civilians are in their custody and they end up dead?” Harris asked.
State Police Colonel Steven O’Donnell says police are responding. Since the shooting of a black suspect in Ferguson, Missouri led to widespread demonstrations, including in Rhode Island, O’Donnell says state police have been talking about how to de-escalate confrontations. They’ve also been reaching out to community advocates.
But O’Donnell adds you have to see the situation from the officer’s perspective. Take a traffic stop. You may be annoyed at getting pulled over, maybe you’re moving around, trying to find your license. But the officer sees it differently.
“Policeman’s doing their job, and they’re watching you move around funny, which is from their training, it’s usually threat of movement, someone’s trying to hide something or there could be a weapon involved,” O’Donnell explained. “So they’re at a level 10, and you’re at a one, and then it’s really how do you get to a five together.”
Rhode Island has not seen a high-profile case of police violence recently, but the ACLU has raised concerns about disproportionate numbers of traffic stops and incarcerations for minorities.
Rhode Island NAACP President Jim Vincent says there’s a need to address issues of race and police both here and across the country.
“In far too many cases you have officers that treat people of color differently than others leading to bad outcomes, and that needs to be corrected,” said Vincent. “Either there should be retraining or there should be more dismissals of those officers because they’re not suitable for that profession. Not everyone can be a police officer.”
Governor Gina Raimondo has ordered a working group to review several aspects of the criminal justice system, including race disparities. Vincent says he hopes that and conversations with law enforcement will produce more concrete change that he’s seen so far.