Outside group will analyze Providence public safety budget

Providence
ELECTION 2020 //
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration has tapped an outside firm to do a financial review and analysis of the city’s public safety budget and operations, with a goal to find “efficiencies” that could allow funds to be allocated elsewhere.

Public Financial Management (PFM) — which has previously done budget analysis for the city — will conduct the review through its Center for Justice and Safety Finance.

Elorza said the audit would not cost the city “a single cent” because it is being funded philanthropically. PFM would not identify who is funding their work.

“The Center’s work is being made possible by a private philanthropic organization that wishes to remain anonymous,” said Seth Williams, deputy director at PFM’s Center for Justice & Safety Finance, in a statement. “While we can’t comment on the donor, we are excited to begin this important work with the City of Providence as they rethink public safety and justice and build a safer, more equitable community.”

The analysis comes amid calls to defund or decrease funding to police, which have been met with fierce opposition from some leaders and the Providence police union. Critics point to the recent streak of violence in the city — including five homicides in August, one inside the Providence Place mall last week and another on Thursday, shortly after Elorza announced the audit.

Activists calling to decrease the police budget argue funds could be better allocated to other services such as housing, education and mental health.

Elorza said he’s been careful not to use the term “defunding” police, in part because it’s not well-defined. And he took issue with some people on both sides of the debate.

“We flatly reject the extremes that we’re hearing on opposite ends of this issue,” Elorza said in a call with reporters. “The slurs against police officers aren’t right and are unjustified. At the same time, the calls and the words that I’ve heard about victims of police violence deserving what they get are just as unjustified and just as wrong.”

The goal of the financial analysis, according to Elorza’s office, is to make “prevention-first investments” with any savings that are found in the public safety budget — which includes the Police Department, Fire Department, the public safety commissioner’s office and the Providence Emergency Management Agency.

Elorza said PFM would audit not only the finances, but also the operations of the department.

“What calls for services do we receive? What hours do they come in? Are they for mental health, are they for loud noise, are they for violent crime?” Elorza said. “They’ll also be looking at how our officers are being asked to use their time. How much of their time is spent doing administrative work? How much are they responding to say, fender-bender car accidents, and how much time are they actually engaged to exercise their training and to actually address crime in our community?”

The analysis is expected to be complete in early 2021.

The Providence police union criticized the move, arguing the department needs more officers, more equipment and more vehicles to address crime in Providence.

“You need as many officers as you can find out there on the streets,” said Michael Imondi, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3. “We believe the police budget needs to be increased in many areas.”

Elorza said the “end product” of the audit is not necessarily cuts to the police department, but will be determined by the analysis. He also said the analysis will inform his thinking on whether a new police academy with 50 recruits — which he proposed in his budget plan in April — should go on as planned in February.

“If we are successful in shifting some of the responsibilities away from public safety and it frees up our officers to be able to dedicate their time more on public safety and respond to calls much more effectively, then perhaps there is no need for the full class that we anticipated,” Elorza said. “However, if we do make these changes and it’s going to take time to implement and we’re still going to need those additional officers, then I’m open to that as well.”

Imondi argued the additional officers are needed regardless, since officers in the existing force are lost through retirements every year.

“Any recommendations made by this PFM group which could impact the ability of the Police Department to provide its critical and necessary services to the city should be wholly rejected,” Imondi said.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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