Chicago looks to Providence for community policing solutions

News

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Chicago had nine homicides last week. The week before, the Midwest’s most populous city clocked in at 11 homicides. 

It’s about as many murders as Providence investigates in an entire year. So what can Chicago Police learn from a police department in a New England city one-fifteenth its size?

More than you think.

“A city with a major crisis of gunfire and gang activity and homicides by guns looked around the country for answers,”Providence Police Col. Hugh Clements said in a recent interview with Eyewitness News. “They’re in the news every single weekend. And they looked to Providence, Rhode Island.”

The Chicago Police recently sent four commanders to Providence, along with several community partner groups, to learn about how Providence is using community policing to tamp down on violent crime including gang shootings and homicides.

Violent crime down in Providence

Providence Police data shows a consistent downward trend in overall crime over the past two decades, cutting the crime rate nearly in half. In the year 2001, there were 14,185 crimes in Providence, according to FBI data. In 2018, that number was 7,302, city data shows. (The full FBI crime report for 2018 has not yet been released.)

From 2013 to 2018, homicides in Providence were down 21%. Aggravated assaults were down 14%, with firearm-related assaults down 27%. Overall violent crime was down 7% over the five year period.

Only sexual offenses saw a statistical increase, up 19% over five years. Clements attributes that to increased reporting of those crimes, rather than an increase in incidents. The only other violent crime that didn’t see a decrease in the time period was robbery with a firearm, basically flat at a 1% increase, though robberies overall were down 9%.

“Had you told me as a young patrolman, ’15 years from now Providence Police will make half the arrests they make now,’ I would say, ‘Crime will double,'” Clements said. “But it’s not. Crime has been cut in half.”

And he’s clear on how he thinks it happened: “How much of our success can be related to community-oriented policing? I’d say all of it.”

The community policing model isn’t new in the U.S, and it’s not new to Providence. The program launched in 2003 under then-Col. Dean Esserman. The idea: decentralize the police department, setting up districts throughout the city instead of focusing on one headquarters and a shift model. There are nine police districts in Providence, and Clements was a district commander when the program first launched.

“You’re a mini-police chief in your area,” Clements said. “We brought the police department … to the community.” He said the key to community-oriented policing is partnering up with neighborhood groups, activists, social service agencies, elected officials and other law enforcement agencies. There are more groups than Clements can count on the so-called “power chart.”

At the same time that community policing launched, Clements said the department started using the CompStat program, which tracks day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year crime stats to allow police to pinpoint trouble spots, direct resources and study overall trends. 

At a recent Tuesday morning meeting of the Providence command staff, the stats from the previous week were displayed on an overhead projector as officers gave reports to the commanders. Five guns were taken off the street that week, one officer reported. There had been no shootings.

Providence still has its share of violence. There have been some particularly violent weekends, like in September when three people were shot in one weekend, one fatally, and shots were fired near a Pop Warner football game. Or in January 2018, when there were five shootings in four days.

“It’s not perfect and we’re going to have our upticks,” Clements said. “When you look in the long run for the three-month period … or you look at the year or the five-year average, it’s really impressive what we’ve done over the years.”

Chicago looks east for answers

Chief Clements is clear: “We’re not going to teach the Chicago Police anything about policing.” The Midwestern city has hundreds of homicides per year with a great deal of experienced detectives working to solve them. But when it comes to community efforts, he said the commanders “marveled” at what he called “the success that we’ve had over the last several years.” 

“They’re looking at their individual district commanders and what they can do to replicate Providence, and replicate hopefully the success,” Clements said.

While Providence’s violent crime rates were going down over the past several years, Chicago’s spiked in 2016. According to FBI data, there were 768 homicides that year, the deadliest in two decades. The number decreased to 653 in 2017.

Chicago Police Commander Ernest Cato said police are looking all over the country for input, from major metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles to smaller cities, like Providence.

“Just because a city may be smaller, that doesn’t mean a larger city can’t learn from them,” said Cato, who runs that city’s 15th district. “We have to listen to everyone — everyone who has an idea — because the main goal is to reduce violence.”

Chicago has actually had a community policing program in place since 1993, but a 2017 report determined the department had lapsed in its efforts. The report,released by the Community Policing Advisory Panel, said “the department’s failure to continue focus on community policing has eroded the gains made in the early years of implementation.”

The panel was commissioned to make recommendations to reimplement community policing, and was made up of police officers, community members, public safety experts, and more. The group held multiple community conversations, writing about several issues in the report including multiple comments that officers “never get out of their cars unless they are responding to calls.”

Following the report, the Chicago Police Department announced plans in 2018 to reinvigorate its community policing efforts as part of Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson’s new strategic plan.

When visiting Providence, Cato said he was particularly impressed by the access community members had to high-ranking police commanders and even the mayor’s office.

“What I was gathering was the relationship they had built with the gang interrupters,” Cato said. And he said he learned it can useful to involve community members in the conversation who have previously committed crimes or even been incarcerated. “We have to collaborate with community organizations. 
We have to be more open minded to those that may have created the violent act so that we’re able to utilize them in a positive manner,” Cato said.

One of the major groups that works with Providence Police is the Nonviolence Institute, headed up by P.J. Fox. Fox says the relationship between the Institute and the police wasn’t always so positive.

“The culture was much different than it was when I started at the Institute,” Fox said. “The department has come a long way.” His organization’s street workers deal directly with at-risk youth and gang members to try and prevent violence.

“It’s a very fine line, because there is still a lot of mistrust for law enforcement,” Fox said.  “And we have to acknowledge that and we have to operate around that premise. … Some of the damage that has been done with policing and the community, it didn’t happen overnight. It was kind of a systemic issue that built up.”

He agrees with Clements that community policing efforts have contributed to the overall decline in crime in Providence.

“It’s very hard to prove what you prevented,” Fox acknowledged. “But you can see the trends over the years … you can see the change in the crime rates.”

Room for improvement

Moving forward, Clements said an increase in officers will allow Providence to increase and improve its community policing efforts. The department will add 50 officers to its ranks this summer, bringing the total number to 453.

Clements says the plan is to have more foot and bike patrols in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“With our limited resources we’ve been unable to do that,” Clements said. “So I think what we can do better is put out those foot-posts once we go plus 50.”

Fox agrees the increase in officers will benefit community efforts.

“The more manpower they have, the more they can commit to getting out of the car, having substations open,” Fox said.

The new recruits graduate in late June.

Steph Machado(smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI12. Follow her on Twitterand on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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