PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The civilian board charged with overseeing the Providence Police Department is looking into the constitutionality of a now-suspended policy regarding the city’s so-called “gang database.”
The database, which police call the “intelligence assessment database,” is aimed at preventing gun violence. But advocacy groups say the most recent iteration of the policy violates a city ordinance passed in 2017, which set guidelines by which police can and cannot put a person’s name in the database.
On Thursday night, the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) heard testimony from the ACLU’s Steven Brown, who said the database policy is “extremely concerning.”
“You look at these criteria, none of them necessarily require that the individual has been involved in any way themselves in criminal activity, much less violent activity,” Brown said. “And yet they can end up in this gang database.”
The policy, which was taken down from the Providence police website this summer, was most recently updated in December 2018, after the passage of the Providence Community-Police Relations Act (PCPRA).
The PCPRA says mere association with gang members is not enough to put someone in the database.
That police policy, which has now been “temporarily rescinded,” includes a list of 15 criteria that could lead to inclusion on the gang list. Each item is assigned a point value, and 10 points could get someone in the database.
Contributing to a “gang publication,” for example, is worth eight points. Showing up in a gang-related photo is worth two points. Possessing gang-related documents is worth four points.
“I have no idea what a gang-related document is, what a gang publication is,” Brown said. “I don’t mean to be facetious, but the weekly newsletters that gangs are printing? When you get down to it, it doesn’t make much sense.”
PERA Chairman Nicholas Figueroa said he believes the police policy is in conflict with the PCPRA.
Providence police declined to be interviewed for this story, and a police captain present at the PERA meeting said it would be inappropriate to comment on a temporarily rescinded policy.
Lindsay Lague, a spokesperson for the police, said in July that police were reviewing the policy.
“The police department has temporarily rescinded the operation of the database until that review is complete and any potential adjustments are made,” Lague said in an email.
That announcement came days after a federal lawsuit was filed by the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) against the police department and the city, alleging the gang database policy violates the PCPRA as well as the First Amendment.
PrYSM was part of a group of advocates who fought for the PCPRA, formerly known as the Community Safety Act, which includes a broad list of requirements for how policy interact with the community. It took years of back and forth between city leaders and the police department and union to get the ordinance passed.
PrYSM’s Vanessa Flores Maldonado said despite those years of work, she feels the police department ignored the new rules regarding the gang database.
“We’ve tried to be really nice, we’ve asked politely, we’ve said ‘yes, please,’ and instead the door keeps being slammed in our face,” Maldonado said. “And so it seems like a lawsuit is the only thing that the city and the police department will respond to.”
The lawsuit alleges non-gang members have been included in the database, leading to discrimination in traffic stops and interactions with police. One person was even barred from getting a gun permit from the Warwick police because his name was flagged as being in the Providence database, according to the suit. That man had never been a gang member, the lawsuit claims.
Brown also said he was concerned about the database being used for immigration enforcement. While the Providence Police Department does not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Brown said police share the gang database with state and federal law enforcement agencies that do cooperate with ICE.
“I think there’s a real fear about ICE using this gang database in order to round up and deport individuals — individuals who haven’t committed any crime whatsoever,” Brown said.