PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence City Council Finance Committee voted Tuesday to create and fund a new civilian position within the city’s police department, amid backlash to the hiring of a non-police officer into a police major job.
The panel also cut the salary for the job and changed the job description. The budget amendments need to be approved by the full City Council.
The new administrative position comes after Michael Stephens, the city’s recreation director, was tapped to become the Providence Police Department’s first-ever community relations and diversion services major.
Elorza’s decision to hire Stephens drew criticism because Stephens doesn’t have any experience in law enforcement, which was originally a requirement for the job. (The job description was changed before Stephens was tapped for the job.)
Leaders of the Providence City Council said they were under the impression they approved and funded the up-to-$137,157 new position for a police officer. The job description included overseeing police training, for example, which Stephens has not done himself.
Police Chief Hugh Clements was quick to say Stephens would not carry a gun, have arrest powers or be a sworn office. But the council moved to block Stephens from stepping into the high-ranking role by sending budget amendments to the Council Finance Committee for consideration.
The Council Finance Committee amended and then approved the ordinances Tuesday night, creating a new “administrator of community relations and diversion” position within the Providence Police Department.
A new job description says the administrator will serve as a liaison to the community, helping with police recruitment and develop a diversion program “reduce police calls for service,” sending some calls to more suitable responders such as mental health clinicians.
Any reference to overseeing police training was removed from the job description.
Finance Chair Jo-Ann Ryan said appointing a civilian to the police major role was not what the Providence City Council had intended, nor was it what Elorza said would happen when he initially proposed the job back in January.
“When my colleagues on the Providence City Council learned that a newly-created major position within the Providence Police Department was being filled with a civilian with no previous policing experience, we heard loud and clear from police and community organizations that this would create confusion about roles while also passing over highly qualified officers within the police department,” Ryan said.
“We all agree on the importance of maintaining the integrity of the Providence Police Department while also improving community-police relations,” Providence City Council President John Igliozzi said, adding that the new civilian position will “do just that.”
Mayor Elorza has not yet committed to signing the amended ordinances.
“The mayor will be having follow up conversations with public safety leadership to review what was submitted last night by the City Council Finance Committee and determine next steps,” press secretary Andrew Grande said in an email.
Elorza had previously said he did not support the ordinances as written, prior to the amendments made Tuesday. He acknowledged that the hiring of a civilian for the job was a surprise, but said Stephens was the best candidate.
In an interview with 12 News on Tuesday, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said he fully supported Stephens’ appointment to the job. (Providence police officers also applied.)
“He’s a city-born young man who’s been here in the city and has a lot of credibility in this community,” Paré said. “He could do a lot of good things structurally going forward.”
Paré also said they “never intended for a civilian to become a police officer,” even though Stephens was announced as the pick for the new major.
“First of all, it’s illegal,” he said. “You can’t just swear somebody in without the appropriate credentials and training, so that was never the intent, but it was wide open as well.”
But Paré said he disagrees with the decision to cut the pay for the job now that it’s been re-classified to a civilian role.
“We still think it’s important that you compensate at this level because of the importance of the work, structurally, going forward,” he said. “I was disappointed that the salary range was reduced. I think that sends a bad message.”
The new salary range is $99,517 to $125,905, down from the originally-approved salary range of $116,666 to $137,157.
City spokespeople have not answered repeated questions about what precise salary Stephens was originally offered.
The Council Finance Committee also retained a fifth police major position, which could eventually be filled by a police officer.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct salary range for the new administrator position.