PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Providence youth group has filed a federal lawsuit over the city police department’s so-called “gang database,” claiming it violates city and state law along with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Providence Youth Student Movement, or PrYSM, filed the suit against the city, Mayor Jorge Elorza, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré and Police Chief Hugh Clements.
The suit claims the gang database, which police have renamed the “intelligence assessment database,” includes people based on mere association with alleged gang members, violating their right to freedom of association. It also alleges racial profiling.
In one case, the suit claims, a Cambodian man was “denied a concealed carry permit for a firearm by the City of Warwick … based on Warwick Police learning that Providence Police had included the man in the gang database, despite the fact that the man had never in his life been a gang member.”
The existence of the gang database has long been a source of tension between community members and the police. A city ordinance passed in 2017 called the Providence Community-Police Relations Act — formerly known as the Community Safety Act — prohibited police from placing people into the database based on association with other gang members, race, place where they live or place where police encountered the person.
It also allows people to find out whether their name is on the list by request, and appeal their inclusion.
The police policy on the database, which is posted on the city website and was revised this past December, includes a list of 15 criteria to be included on the gang list. Each criteria is given a point value, and anyone with 10 points is included on the list. (Self-admission to gang membership, for example, is an automatic 10 points.)
The policy says the goal of the list is to proactively prevent violence and “afford protections to the community from criminal activity, including gang-related crimes and violence.”
PrYSM wants the policy to be rescinded. The group claims the criteria that “appearance in gang group-related photographs” is worthy of points towards the database violates the PCPRA’s ban on “association” with gang members as a criteria.
The group also said the ability to land yourself on the gang list for being a “contributor to gang publications” violates the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.
Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Mayor Elorza, said the city does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Clements confirmed Tuesday morning, prior to the filing of the lawsuit, that the gang database is still actively maintained by the department.
At a meeting Monday night of the police oversight board called the Providence External Review Authority, representatives from PrYSM spoke out about the database.
“We don’t need a gang database to keep the community safe,” PrYSM’s Vanessa Flores-Maldonado told the board members.
The board, which elected Nick Figueroa as its new chairman on Monday, attempted to question Captain Dean Isabella about the database. He was representing the police at the meeting.
“I don’t have any information on that policy,” Isabella said.