PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Support is growing among city leaders to hire 50 new police recruits next spring, after budgetary woes previously led some to float the idea of canceling or reducing the size of the police academy.
But the six month academy wouldn’t be ready to start until March at the earliest, according to Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, meaning the soonest new police officers could join the force is still almost a year away in September 2021.
The police academy was originally scheduled to begin this coming February, and recruiting started last fall — prior to the pandemic — with nearly 1,000 applicants responding by January of this year.
But logistical problems related to testing the recruits during COVID-19, coupled with calls to defund police and a growing budget dilemma, led to questions about whether the academy would take place at all, or potentially be reduced in size.
“The question on the table is do we really need those new officers, or do we invest the money in other areas,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said back in July. City Council leaders had also expressed interest in reducing the size of the planned academy because of the city’s financial problems.
But amid an uptick of shootings and homicides, along with widespread protests taxing police resources, a majority of City Council members along with Elorza have now thrown their support behind hiring 50 new officers next year.
Council Finance Chairman John Igliozzi said he was concerned that the shrinking size of the police force — which happens through attrition, as officers retire and are not immediately replaced — could cause a critical problem if an academy isn’t held soon.
“We’re not going to have enough police officers to address all the issues that are occurring today and moving forward,” Igliozzi told 12 News. He referred to large protests that happened over the summer and continuing into the fall, which he described as “terrorizing our neighborhoods and our city.”
The debate over holding an academy led to a public dust-up between Elorza and Council President Sabina Matos earlier this month, after Matos and seven other councilors called on the mayor to initiate an “immediate start to the police academy” amid an uptick in gun violence.
Elorza criticized Matos for trying to “have it both ways,” by proposing to cut the department’s budget while also launching an academy, which would result in a budget increase. Matos responded by calling the mayor “tone-deaf” on the issue of violence in the city.
Elorza’s press secretary Patricia Socarras on Wednesday said Elorza is now “supportive of moving forward with the police academy as a step to increase capacity and create a more diverse public safety presences in our community.”
“The mayor is also supportive of police reform, and acknowledges that we cannot conflate the need for reform with a mandate to reduce the size of our force,” Socarras said.
The Police Department currently has 419 sworn officers, and last graduated an academy in 2019 with 45 new officers joining the force. Since then, 19 officers have retired, and Chief Hugh Clements said at a Council Finance meeting last week he is concerned about more retirements than usual in the upcoming year.
“It’s hard to predict how many are going to go next year especially in this present anti-policing climate,” Clements said. “Certainly a lot of people are talking like they will.” There are currently 113 officers eligible to retire.
The chief said the department should ideally have between 450 and 500 officers.
Elorza’s administration maintains the city needs to pass a budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 — which started in July — in order to hold the academy. The budget is delayed as the city awaits state and federal aid because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Igliozzi’s Council Finance Committee announced last week it had “found” ample funding for the academy in the existing fiscal year 2019-20 budget, though the committee only discussed having enough money for the recruits’ salaries.
While internal auditor Gina Costa confirmed at the meeting that $800,000 was available in the Police Department’s existing salary line item to pay the recruits (they make $20 per hour during the academy), hiring 50 new officers also has other costs. The department will need to buy new firearms, uniforms and other equipment for the new officers, with a total estimated cost of $1.4 million in fiscal year 2020-21. The academy would also extend into fiscal year 2021-22, which starts in July 2021.
Plus, the city has to pay for a new training facility, either by renovating an existing city building or leasing or purchasing a new building by March. No estimated cost for that endeavor has been released, though Commissioner Paré said police are looking into using the former Providence Water building on Academy Avenue.
Socarras said another request for proposals will be advertised after no bidders responded to the previous search for a facility location.
Regardless of whether the money is available now or needs to be passed in the upcoming budget, the police department still wouldn’t be ready to hold the academy until March at the earliest, Paré and Clements said.
The nearly 1,000 applicants have been whittled down to 193 over the course of this year, following agility tests and written exams. The process was delayed after the department struggled to find anyone willing to host the testing during the pandemic. It ultimately took place at the Community College of Rhode Island in September.
The next step is oral interviews, which will likely take the entire month of November, Paré said. Then there is the crucial background checks — conducted internally by the department’s detective division — which could take up to 12 weeks as detectives also investigate recent crimes.
Conditional offers of employment will then be made to 50 people, pending psychological and medical evaluations. Another 10-15 recruits will be named as alternates.
The police academy appears to have the votes on the council, with eight of the 15 councilors calling on the city earlier this month to launch an academy, plus several others indicating support for holding an academy as long as there is a transparent budget process around funding it.
Councilor Rachel Miller said she wants to see a public conversation about policing continue “before the city makes decisions about a new academy.”
That could include a proposal to divert some 911 calls (for mental health or substance abuse, for example) to appropriate social service providers, thus freeing up police to deal with crime.
“I’d like us to have that conversation, know the potential costs of a program, and make decisions about 2021 spending together in a forum and format our constituents can participate in,” she said.
Igliozzi said a potential proposal would include beefing up funding for the “go team” at Family Service of Rhode Island, which already works with the Providence Police Department.