In stunner, Providence City Council tables police profiling act

Dan McGowan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With opposition mounting from the city’s police union, the Providence City Council took a surprise vote Thursday to table the Community Safety Act, a far-reaching ordinance designed to curb profiling by the city’s police.

The all-Democratic council voted 9-5 to place the Community Safety Act (CSA) on hold until June 1. The last-minute change was opposed by Councilpersons Kevin Jackson, Carmen Castillo, Mary Kay Harris, Sabina Matos and Bryan Principe voting against the motion. One member, Seth Yurdin, was absent.

“The action that is before us tonight is not to end this,” Council President Luis Aponte said, speaking from the rostrum. The council then approved the establishment of a working group comprised of city officials that will discuss implementation of the ordinance if it is eventually approved.

The council voted 12-0 last week to give first passage to the CSA and Mayor Jorge Elorza indicated he intended to sign it into law following a second vote. The mayor used part of his budget address Wednesday evening to call the ordinance one of the “most comprehensive pieces of police-community relations legislation in the country.”

But support for the ordinance began to dissipate after Police Chief Hugh Clements said he doesn’t believe the ordinance is necessary. A relentless push from the Providence Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, including a scathing letter to the council Wednesday, was also alarming to some councilors. By late Wednesday evening, city officials acknowledged they thought the ordinance could be tabled.

None of that fazed council leadership, which maintained the CSA was still on track for passage for much of Thursday. Supporters of the CSA handed out a press release that assumed the ordinance would be approved. But as councilors met behind closed doors leading up to the 5:30 meeting, it became clear the mood had shifted. Both Aponte and Councilman Kevin Jackson acknowledged it appeared the CSA would not move forward shortly before the meeting started.

As word started to leak to supporters in the chamber, chants of “do your job” broke. The crowd booed loudly as Aponte and others sought to explain what was happening. Aponte and Majority Leader Bryan Principe expressed frustration that the issue became a “pro-police or pro-CSA” discussion. Aponte called it a “false dichotomy.”

After the meeting, Elorza declined to be interviewed by Eyewitness News. A spokesperson said he still intends to sign it into law if it is approved.

First introduced in 2014, the Community Safety Act was crafted by a coalition of activist groups and community leaders across the city. The final version of the ordinance was produced after months of negotiations between the Elorza administration, the City Council and community groups.

The ordinance prohibits police from relying on everything from race, ethnicity or language to housing status or political affiliation as a reason to suspect an individual has committed or is about to commit a crime. It also prohibits officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status or from complying with requests from other agencies – including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – to support or assist operations conducted solely for the purpose of enforcing federal civil immigration law.

The ordinance also dictates how cops should document most of their encounters with the public, explains how officers should handle traffic stops and surveillance and grants more power to the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), an independent, nine-member board appointed by the mayor’s office and the City Council.

Another provision allows individuals to inquire whether they’re in the police department’s gang database, an intelligence tool officers use to track gang members. People in the database would have the right to appeal their inclusion on the list. Prior to adding anyone under the age of 18 to the database, police will be required to provide written notice to the person and a parent or guardian.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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