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Did Cornel Young Jr. die in vain?
Four years after the Providence officer’s death, debate persists about whether enough has been done to avert a similar tragedy

FOUR YEARS have done nothing to ease Leisa Young’s grief, or her fear that any one of the 88 officers of color on the Providence Police Department could meet the same fate as her son. If anything, she’s lost hope that the death of Sergeant Cornel Young Jr. will make any difference.

Wednesday, January 28, is the fourth anniversary of the "friendly fire" shooting that left Mrs. Young childless, a whole police force shaken, and a community divided. Cornel Young Jr., 29, an off-duty patrolman, was killed outside the Fidas Restaurant by two fellow officers who mistook him for a criminal as he tried to help them quell a disturbance.

Police leaders called it a "tragic accident," but also blamed the slain officer, to a great extent. He was in civilian clothes, and his colleagues had no way of knowing he was there, so they were bound to assume he was a criminal when he emerged from the diner, pointing a gun. Young shouted, "Police!," but they didn’t hear him, and he didn’t show his badge. And when Patrolman Carlos A. Saraiva ordered him, three times, to drop his gun, he did not.

But Young was also black, and the officers who shot him, Saraiva and Michael Solitro III, were white. The question hung in the air: Had Young been white, would he have lived? Would he have gotten even another second that could’ve made the difference? Young was far from the first black police officer to be shot by a white colleague in the United States. Though statistics are hard to come by, incidents from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, have led many to think that dark skin makes minority cops disproportionately vulnerable to such accidents.

And there was more to fuel concerns. Saraiva had been Young’s classmate at the Providence Police Academy; should he have recognized his fellow officer? Saraiva had also shot a Hispanic man in the leg shortly before, and been cleared of wrongdoing. For those who already saw the Providence police as racist and violent — and there were many — the Young shooting seemed to prove their worst fears. If a black police officer wasn’t safe, who was?

After a state grand jury and the US attorney’s office declined to charge the officers criminally, Leisa Young filed a $20 million civil-rights and wrongful-death lawsuit against the police department, saying she wanted to expose the truth about her son’s death, and in the process, bring about changes to ensure no one else would ever die as he did.

Yet when the case went to trial, last fall, it only reinforced many people’s concerns about systemic racism. From the start, US District Judge Mary M. Lisi limited how much of their case Leisa Young’s lawyers could present, and after alleged misconduct by two of them, Barry C. Scheck and Nick Brustin, she took them off the case. Then, Lisi dismissed the case entirely, even after a jury had found that one of the two shooters had violated Cornel Young Jr.’s civil rights. Clifford R. Montiero, the president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, called the outcome "Mississippi justice."

Leisa Young wasn’t the only one pushing for change, however. Two commissions formed in the wake of the shooting had recommended scores of reforms. Leisa Young’s former husband, now-retired Providence Police Major Cornel Young Sr. (who wasn’t a party in the lawsuit), stayed on the force, despite a serious illness, to promote change from within. And the city has three times changed police chiefs — most recently with the arrival last year of Colonel Dean Esserman, a Dartmouth-educated New Yorker widely respected for his expertise and community-oriented approach.

Leisa Young says she doesn’t know if anything has changed, "because I’m the last person in hell they want to talk to." But based on what she sees and hears from people around her, she’s not optimistic. "I’m just so disillusioned, and I wish I had kept him out of that department," she says, referring to her late son. "I want something good to come out of this, and no matter how hard I try, they’re always going to blame him for what happened that night."

HAS ANYTHING GOOD come from the tragedy?

Interviews with police, community leaders, and Major Young suggest the answer is yes, but hardly as much as many people had hoped, and it has come about much more slowly than one might have expected.

The first "friendly fire" fatality in memory among the Providence police, Young’s death was clearly a jolt for the department, a violent lesson that cop-on-cop shootings are not just the stuff of textbooks and training videos, but a real danger. "Before it happened, it seemed like such a remote possibility," says Captain Thomas F. Oates III, a 24-year police veteran who now heads the department’s administrative division. "After it happened, we realized that across the country, it happens more frequently than anybody would believe." (Indeed, after decades without a single "friendly fire" police death in Rhode Island, there was soon a second one: in December 2001, East Providence police Major Alister C. McGregor was accidentally shot by a patrolman during a training exercise.)

Yet in the first year after Young’s death, under Colonel Urbano Prignano Jr., the Providence Police Department’s policies, procedures, and training programs remained virtually unchanged. Despite his old-timer image, Prignano supported modernization, but he refused to do what his critics wanted. Operation Plunder Dome also got in the way, exposing alleged corruption within the department and ending Prignano’s tenure. But the chief and his director of administration, Captain John J. Ryan, also felt the Providence police were already doing things right, and that Young died not because Saraiva and Solitro weren’t trained well, but because Young didn’t do as he’d been taught.

The department was, indeed, already giving its officers fairly sophisticated training in the split-second judgments required in situations such as the melee outside Fidas on January 28, 2000. As part of the Providence Police Academy curriculum, and in annual weapons-training refreshers, officers took part in simulations of domestic violence calls, building searches, car stops, and other scenarios, making shoot-don’t shoot decisions and then discussing them in-depth.

The standard training also covered special precautions that officers should take when working in plainclothes, and stepping into a situation while off-duty, according to Sergeant Robert Boehm, a weapons instructor at the academy since 1994. Officers were taught not to expect to be recognized, Boehm says, to hold out their badge, and to obey all commands. They were taught to alert a dispatcher, if possible, to their presence, and to stay out of a situation — just be a good witness — if their involvement could escalate the problem or put others’ lives at risk.

As Leisa Young’s lawyers would stress in their lawsuit, however, there was no specialized training unit on off-duty behavior; Boehm says it was just part of the overall curriculum. And even after Young’s death, the department stuck with a longstanding rule that officers must carry a gun 24 hours a day, except while on vacation or sick leave.

Such requirements, based on the notion that a police officer should always be ready to step in to protect the public, were once common, but had been abolished over the years in most US police departments. In Washington, DC, where three black officers where slain within four years in the 1990s by white colleagues who’d mistaken them for criminals, the rules actually went in the opposite direction: if off-duty police wanted to carry a gun, they were advised to carry their police radios as well, so they could communicate with their on-duty colleagues.

The Providence policy was particularly troubling because it’s a crime to carry a gun while intoxicated, yet officers of every rank, up to the chief himself, could be seen drinking at local bars — most in moderation, but some not.

THE GUN requirement was finally dropped in September 2001, after Colonel Richard T. Sullivan had become interim chief. Sullivan also issued an order outlining the department’s expectations of off-duty officers, a two-page document that reflects what Boehm had described as standard training.

Captain Oates says the new policy was a direct response to concerns raised by the Fidas shooting. "One of the questions was, what would have happened if [Young] wasn’t armed?" he says. Under the new rules, where before, "you got involved in everything, now you have an obligation to sit back and weigh the situation," he adds. The order advises police to hold back if their involvement could escalate a crisis or put someone at risk. "[But] obviously, if it’s a life-or-death situation," Oates says, "where someone’s life is in jeopardy, you’re going to want to be involved."

What would that have meant for Young? Oates and Major Andrew Rosenzweig, deputy chief under Esserman, both refuse to speak directly about the Young case, citing the lawsuit and their sense of propriety. But witness statements paint a picture of chaos outside Fidas: women armed with a pipe and a broken bottle, a rowdy crowd, then Aldrin Diaz in his car, waving a gun. How many off-duty officers would not have tried to help?

Both new recruits and officers getting routine weapons training are taught specifically what to do when they’re off duty and encounter a uniformed colleague, Boehm says: call out, "Police" and their name, the name of the uniformed officer — and hold out their badge over their gun.

Leisa Young says her son was never taught this, but Boehm says he was. Boehm, who personally developed much of the curriculum, says the training is "the same" as it’s been for years: "The incident didn’t bring about any changes in training, because we were already training for things such as off-duty situations. The only thing I can say is that we do bring up off-duty policy more because of the incident." Off-duty conduct is also a separate unit, he adds, whereas it used to be incorporated throughout weapons training.

Whoever is right, since Esserman’s arrival last year, further policy changes have occurred that, Oates and Rosenzweig say, should make the department safer.

Instead of pairing up rookies with random officers, as was done with Solitro and Saraiva, a formal field-training officer system has been set up, and the officers designated as trainers go through a special program that meets national standards, Oates says.

There is a new use-of-force policy that advises officers to use only the force needed to contain a situation — nothing new, Oates says, but "we just reiterated that." (This is consistent with Saraiva and Solitro’s actions, by the way; officers are taught to face armed suspects with their guns out, and shoot if needed.)

Other changes include the replacement of nightsticks, long viewed as tools of police brutality, with expandable batons. Starting this year, all officers must go through weapons training twice a year, not just once. And officers using specialty weapons such as rifles and shotguns must now undergo specialty training.

Officers’ use of force is also documented more carefully than ever, with detailed forms that are reviewed by both Boehm and an internal affairs detective. An "early warning system" flags officers who seem to be using too much force, putting them under close supervision and providing extra training. Inspector Francisco Colon Jr., the department’s chief disciplinarian since June, says a handful of the department’s 494 members have gone through the system.

"It’s non-punitive," Colon says. "It’s meant to provide an officer with assistance to correct the problem."


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Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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