[Sidebar] September 16 - 23, 1999


Whose force is it, anyway?

Despite enthusiastic support from residents, community policing remains marginalized in Providence

by Ian Donnis

[] Walking by the Mount Hope Learning Center on Camp Street, an anxious woman in her early 30s pops in through an open doorway when she spots three Providence police officers meeting with a small group of community activists. The woman, who lives in a nearby building, describes her fear of the youths who loiter and smoke marijuana on her rooftop. Asked by one of the officers if she has reported her concerns to police, the woman says no. Asked why she doesn't call, the woman cites worries about retribution, and adds solemnly, "I don't call because I just don't call."

In this case, the presence of three cops in a neighborhood storefront makes it easy for the woman to approach them. And Patrolman George Pereira, a community policing officer assigned to Mount Hope, is appreciative of the information she offers -- it provides the probable cause he legally needs to stop the youths when he next sees them.

This exchange reflects two significant things: the estrangement and lack of communication that often exists between residents and police in the poor Providence neighborhoods that are most in need of effective policing; and the very real chance for police and residents to make improvements when they work together. After a summer in which the police department has been buffeted by a series of embarrassing disclosures, the situation in Mount Hope also shows the strengths and weaknesses of the department's approach to the tactic -- community policing -- that offers the greatest promise for transforming the police department.

The streets around the Mount Hope Learning Center form the kind of neighborhood that desperately needs a strong partnership between residents and law enforcement. Although the pocket of poverty on the generally affluent East Side is little more than a mile from the carefree shops and cafes of Thayer Street, it's flecked by boarded-up homes and often plagued by young toughs who peddle drugs at the crossroads of Camp and Cypress streets. It's this kind of lawlessness that causes the bulk of law-abiding residents to keep their fears to themselves in quiet frustration, rather than calling the police.

In this atmosphere, Pereira and his partner, Patrolman Jeffrey Ferreira, have made a difference. The two officers are credited with squelching crime and triggering a transformation in which young neighborhood kids are more likely to view the police as enviable role models, rather than representatives of an abstract bureaucracy. Pereira and Ferreira also serve as instructors, board members and field trip organizers at the learning center, which was created through volunteer efforts and donations in 1997 to provide a stimulating sanctuary, laden with books and dated computers, for disadvantaged children. "This would not work without them," says Lenny Long, chairman of the crime prevention task force of Greater Camp Concerned Citizens. "They have played a vital role in the success of it."

But community policing efforts are undermined, according to Long and activists in Mount Pleasant, Elmwood and other Providence neighborhoods, because of the frequent diversion of community policing officers to parades, festivals, WaterFires, labor actions, and other special events. And in a department with 468 officers, community policing remains a separate unit with roughly 30 officers, rather than an integrated approach that systematically informs how police carry out their responsibilities.

Police officials says community policing officers are occasionally diverted from their posts because of budget restrictions, staffing shortfalls, and time off due to officers. Since contractual obligations mandate the presence of a minimum number of patrol officers per shift, administrators try to avoid running up overtime costs by reassigning officers from discretionary units, including community policing. "In a perfect world, in a perfect situation, you'd like to have everything covered," says Col. Urbano Prignano Jr., the chief of police. He adds, though, "it will never exist." But in two comparably sized communities -- Worcester, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut -- operating with a similar number of officers has not precluded what officials in those cities described as a more integrated approach to community policing.

On the surface, relations appear to be smooth between Prignano and Public Safety Commissioner John J. Partington Jr., the respected former US marshal who was brought in as the civilian overseer of the police and fire departments in 1990 after the notorious mob witness Peter Gilbert died in police custody. But there's a fundamental difference in how the two men talk about community policing: Partington describes it as the department's future, but Prignano lacks a detailed plan for achieving this vision. Given such a disparity, not much is likely to change from within the police department unless Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. brings his considerable influence to bear.

As it stands, the status quo is fine for the well-off residents of Providence who typically have little need to interact with the police. But for many people -- minorities who feel they suffer the brunt of police misconduct; low- and moderate-income residents who are disproportionately affected by the effects of violent crime; and working-class residents who need help in curbing everything from gang activity to nuisances like loud noise -- the current approach perpetuates frustration, dissatisfaction and the sense that police are not responsive enough to their needs.

Prignano, who inherited the separate community policing unit when he became police chief in 1995, says he remains dedicated to instilling community policing throughout the department. Prignano and Capt. John J. Ryan, the department's spokesman, contend that complaints of officers being diverted from their beats are greatly overstated, and they note that a minimum number of patrol officers are always assigned as a frontline response throughout the city. But Partington acknowledges that community policing is a tough sell for many officers, and he adds, "I think, right now, we have a long way to go with community policing."

On the streets of Elmwood and South Providence, the Providence Renaissance seems like a mirage. Although Providence has a relatively low rate of violent crime for a city of its size, a spate of recent homicides in the two neighborhoods (bringing the total number in the city this year to 19, compared to 16 last year and 13 in 1997) have reminded residents of how lethal violence can flare quickly and unpredictably. Even before the slayings, City Councilwoman Patricia K. Nolan lamented the persistence of drug dealing, shootings and the lack of good job opportunities in her district.

Like many local observers, she praises the vast majority of police officers for their performance in a difficult and often hazardous job. But Nolan is also saddened by the police harassment of black and Hispanic youths that she's seen and heard about from her constituents. "I believe the general police population would like to wipe that out," she says. "It just makes it hard for the good cops when you have that handful of bad cops."

The belief that minorities suffer the bulk of police misconduct -- ranging from brutality to a presumption of wrongdoing for merely driving or walking down the street -- is typical of many large cities, and Providence is no different. In 1991, a US Justice Department study found that Providence police were 10 times more likely than their counterparts in Boston to be the subject of civil rights complaints. Since the study considered only allegations, rather than substantiated complaints, it's difficult to assess the veracity of such charges. Some observers, though, point to the sheer volume of complaints as evidence of a serious problem.

Public efforts to evaluate the extent of police misconduct moved forward in May, when a judge ordered the city to provide Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), a South Providence citizens group, with access to 295 files of civilian complaints against police. "We may be the Renaissance City, but the Medicis are not in control," Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr. said in making his ruling, which followed a five-year battle by DARE to examine the records.

Monique Williams, a DARE member who is helping to coordinate an analysis of the files, says that while most of the complaints were made by black or Hispanic residents, the examination is ongoing and meaningful results have yet to emerge. Nonetheless, Williams, a black single mother, says the behavior of a small number of police officers has jaundiced many minority youths and adults in South Providence in their view of the police department. "If you can't trust the police," she asks sadly, "who can you trust?"

The key to solving such problems is community policing, according to George L. Kelling, a Rutgers University professor who co-created the influential "Broken Windows" theory of policing. The theory, most famously applied in New York City in the early `90s, holds that police can substantially reduce serious crime by focusing on symptoms of disorder like graffiti, public urination and street-level drug sales.

"The difficulty that many police departments have is that many officers, minorities as well as white, are fearful of residents in the neighborhood," says Kelling, since past strategies have emphasized remoteness through cruiser-based patrols, particularly in poor, urban neighborhoods. "Consequently, a lot of the confrontations that develop, particularly between police and African-American youths, are a result of the lack of familiarity and the fear that goes along with that. When police are fearful going into a community, they tend to use the preemptive kinds of force that cause the very thing the police are trying to avoid."

A related problem is the underrepresentation of minorities in the police department. Ryan did not respond to a request for information on the specific number of minority officers in Providence. But state Representative Joseph S. Almeida (D-Providence), a former Providence officer and past president of the Rhode Island Minority Policeman's Association, estimated there are about 80 minority officers in the department, or less than 15 percent, in a city where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities compose more than 30 percent of the population. And despite some real progress, Almeida says, the percentage of minority officers who hold ranking positions is much smaller.

Derek P. Ellerman, executive director of the Center for Police and Community (CPAC), a one-year-old citizens group that has engaged the police in a dialogue to become more responsive to community needs, says police administrators, "really need to work on building positive relations, and part of that is going to be strengthening community policing, and part is having minority officers in higher ranking positions."

Community policing offers the hope of replacing mistrust and estrangement between residents and police with an active partnership. The approach is built on the premise that rather than defining problems by themselves, police are supposed to take their cues from a consensus of residents. "It's a major rethinking of how to relate to neighborhoods and communities," says Kelling. "Community policing affects all aspects of police strategy, from the structure of the organization to how priorities are determined."

But despite some steps in the right direction, the department's commitment to community policing remains in doubt by many observers.

Almeida, for example, says, "I really think the higher echelon doesn't take community policing seriously." A Providence police officer for 18 years before he left the department in 1997, Almeida says he was often pulled away from his post when he was assigned as a community policing officer in Mount Hope in the mid-'90s.

Under the best of circumstances, introducing full-fledged community policing to a department is a formidable challenge. Like most bureaucracies, law enforcement organizations are deeply rooted in tradition and resistant to change. Not every cop has the interest or motivation to be concerned with quality of life violations and neighborhood nuisances, along with the bigger busts that attract more attention. Community policing is sometimes misunderstood as a relatively minor community relations effort. Even with a sustained commitment, integrating community policing into a department can cause major turmoil, since it essentially represents the reinvention of an institution.

In Boston, Kelling says, police struggled with community policing for 10 years before developing an effort now hailed as a national model for reducing crime through collaborative efforts with the community. And when it comes to moving such efforts forward within a department, he says, little is going to happen without strong leadership from the top.

To his credit, Prignano, 56, recognizes that contemporary policing requires a more complex and multi-faceted approach than simply, as he would put it in his old-school vernacular, getting the bad guys. Since becoming chief four years ago, he's supported recreation programs, a football league for gang members, an alternative school program in which police work with at-risk youth, and other nontraditional efforts to prevent violence.

Prignano claims responsibility for introducing new technology to the department, including a fingerprint database credited with solving the shooting death of a young man at Corliss Landing in June, and many other crimes. In a move to increase the sensitivity of police, 19 officers were certified as trainers in the non-violence techniques of Martin Luther King Jr., and they, in turn, have trained 300 of their peers.

A 33-year veteran with broad departmental experience, Prignano was touted as "a cop's cop," and the leader of a new "dream team" when Cianci chose him to succeed Bernard Gannon in 1995. But after leaks fueled a series of disclosures in the Providence Journal, the last six months have been less than dreamy for the Providence police.

In April, relations between the rank-and-file and the administration hit a low point, including a no-confidence vote in Prignano and his deputies, after a hidden surveillance camera was discovered in a clock at the Dupont Drive substation. Maj. Dennis Simoneau, head of the patrol division, said the camera was his own initiative, launched in response to problems with vandalism.

The tempest was followed by Journal stories that raised questions about the department's record-keeping, including the revelation that police were unable to locate a kilo of cocaine seized in a 1997 raid. A day later, as Cianci was about to call for a grand jury investigation, police said the misplaced cocaine had been found in the department's antiquated evidence room, a former shooting range. The mayor now dismisses the cocaine caper as an overblown story that took flight when the officer who conducted an initial search made only a cursory effort.

Prignano and Ryan readily concede that the department's record-keeping methods have long been badly outmoded, but they say such problems are being corrected with the introduction of a $3 million records management system that Prignano sought several years ago when he recognized the flaws of the existing system. "If you think it's only my tenure," Prignano says of the lingering effect of old practices and constraints related to the outdated department headquarters in La Salle Square. "I don't think so. I think it goes back 100 years."

For his part, Cianci has no evident concern about the record-keeping issues. The mayor says a poll that he commissioned shows that more than 70 percent of city residents have a favorable view of the police. Some other observers, though, are more concerned about the impact. State Representative David N. Cicilline (D-Providence), a criminal-defense lawyer with an office on Federal Hill, says it's highly disturbing when people read about lax record-keeping and similar problems, "because it undermines public confidence in other functions of the police department, whether it's fair or not." Such problems may provide grist for defense lawyers, he adds, but it's not a good thing for the community.

Prignano, who has a reputation for being temperamental, becomes tired and impatient when questioned about the department's record-keeping problems. "Guess what?" he says. "We're fixing it."

Asked about Kelling's prescription for community policing, Prignano says the approach is no different from the tactics used when he became a cop in 1966, when officers on foot patrol were expected by their supervisors to have a comprehensive knowledge of their beats.

But he acknowledges that the segregation of community policing as a distinct unit within the Police Department is a fundamentally flawed approach, shouting at one point during an interview, "You don't split patrol and community policing!"

The department plans to use a $208,000 Justice Department grant to start educating the entire department in community policing. In the absence of other efforts, it's "up to the supervisor to set the tone," Prignano says. Even without the new training, Ryan says many younger patrol officers are taking up the challenge of policing quality of life crimes, like calls about loud noise, with their other responsibilities. "There are a phenomenal number of complaints being taken care of by the patrol bureau," he says. "That sometimes goes unknown."

The causes of crime are tied to poverty, drugs, the breakdown of the family -- societal issues that are beyond the ability of police departments to solve. But in Providence, where episodes like the cocaine caper inspired no visible public response beyond occasional waggish remarks, it's telling that residents around the city are calling for a more responsive brand of policing. And after Prignano has been on the job for four years, some community leaders are questioning why the department hasn't made a more robust commitment to community policing.

"I don't know if the chief sees community relations or community policing as being as important as the mayor wants it to be," says Dennis B. Langley, executive director of The Urban League. "I would say the mayor needs to look at the leadership he's getting, and to make sure that he has the right person to propel us into the 21st century."

Cianci has remained unwavering in his support of Prignano, rejecting an offer by the chief to resign during the height of the conflict over the hidden camera at the Dupont Drive substation. The mayor, who was recently presented with a petition from Greater Camp Concerned Citizens, calling for a steadier presence of community policing officers in Mount Hope, says such concerns are being expressed by only a small number of residents.

This kind of reaction is cold comfort, though, for residents who are seeking a more active partnership with police. "We keep going through the same issues over and over again," as if the problems of brazen drug dealing at Camp and Cypress streets were unknown, says Long, the community activist. "They're placating us to the point where it's embarrassing."

Such feelings aren't limited to Mount Hope. "It really hurts our neighborhood when they take our community police and put them elsewhere," says Dorothy McCaffrey, a community organizer in Mount Pleasant, who volunteers 30 hours a week at a storefront substation on Cambridge Street after completing her job as a crossing guard. "For the last three years, they just haven't been here for the people. Sometimes, people come in and they're so frustrated. There are times," McCaffrey says, when she and a fellow volunteer, "go out and try to solve the problem."

Frustrated by the situation, citizens and some city officials are increasingly pushing for change. The dissatisfaction was evident during a special City Council meeting last week, which was organized by City Council President John J. Lombardi to discuss the persistence of drug-related crime in some city neighborhoods. Even before the meeting was scheduled, Lombardi was expressing the need for "some different people at the top who are more in tune with community policing."

Ultimately, this is not about the police, says Lombardi. "This is about the taxpayers. This is their police department."

Back in Mount Hope, the Center for Police and Community recently began an organizing effort, intended to be a model for other neighborhoods, to increase the presence of community police and build cooperative efforts between police and residents. "We feel strongly that a small group of regular people can really create a major neighborhood impact in Providence," says Ellerman, CPAC's executive director.

During one recent meeting, when the edgy neighborhood woman stopped in to express her concerns about the menacing youths on her roof, police agreed to staff the substation for 30 minutes on Wednesday nights, so other residents and community groups can stop by in the same way. And by sitting down together, police and community organizers took a step toward transforming their relationship with each other.

One of the police officials at the meeting, Lt. Paul Fitzgerald, appeared initially wary when Ellerman presented a short list of proposals made by CPAC. Within a short time, though, a nascent rapport started to develop between Fitzgerald and the community activists. "You've done some reading on community policing," Fitzgerald remarked with appreciation after a comment by Lisa Niebels, CPAC's coordinator in Mount Hope. "It's important to me," responded Niebels. "I live here."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

Arrested development

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