Providence police chief defends force as a ‘damn good department’ amid defunding debate

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The chief of the Providence Police defended his force as a “damn good department” on Wednesday, while acknowledging the pain felt by people who have experienced police brutality or racism at the hands of officers.

Col. Hugh Clements, the Providence chief, was testifying before the Providence City Council Finance Committee at a meeting aimed at discussing calls to “defund” the police department, or reallocate resources from the department to other services.

“We feel that any stripping of the Providence Police Department budget — which is already paper-thin — will completely ruin our efforts in the community for community engagement and just take us backwards,” Clements said.

The over four-hour meeting was held virtually over Zoom with more than 200 people tuning in, while several hundred gathered outside City Hall also calling to defund or even abolish policing altogether. Community organizers have proposed shifting funding from police to other services such as education, mental health and public housing.

The committee heard powerful testimony from some members of the community who said they had experienced or witnessed police brutality.

Alexis Morales, who works with the social justice group Direct Action for Rights and Equality, said he had a gun pulled on him years ago during a traffic stop that was initiated because a license plate light was out. He said he and his friends declined to allow officers to search the car without cause, and the situation escalated from there.

“I had a 12-gauge shotgun to my head,” Morales said. “They busted the window and dragged my friend out of the car. They continued to kick him, Tase him.” When the officers found nothing incriminating in the car, he said, they called him “stupid” for not allowing the search in the first place.

“You defund social services all the time,” Providence resident Charlotte Abotsi argued to the panel. “You defund schools. You defund hospitals, community health centers, programs for low-income communities all the time. You are experts at defunding.”

Many of the community members said while decreasing funding is one step, abolishing policing and replacing it with a different system is their ultimate goal.

When Vanessa Flores-Maldonado from Providence Youth Student Movement was testifying about her community being in fear of police violence, she stopped to call out Michael Imondi, the police union president, who appeared to be smirking while muted on the Zoom call.

“I see you laughing Mike Imondi,” Flores-Maldonado said. “The community is upset and you are here on camera laughing. I hope you understand that you have done harm to us.”

Councilman John Igliozzi, the committee chairman, then asked attendees to be respectful or else their video would be shut off.

“I hear your pain,” Clements said in response to the testimony. “We’re not perfect. … But we are a damn good police department.”

He said the Providence Police responds to 150,000 calls a year to help the community, and when mistakes are made, “we hold our people accountable.” He pointed out that Providence has already banned chokeholds and warning shots, two actions that activists are aiming to ban nationally.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said abolishing the police would “bring chaos and lawlessness” to Providence, while also saying police “need to take ownership of the past to correct the system going forward.”

“There’s some bad apples in every profession,” Paré said. “But to say that the entire profession is bad apples, I respectfully disagree because I know a lot of those apples and those apples are good apples that work hard for the right reasons under really difficult conditions.”

He acknowledged that the department can be hamstrung by the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), a state law which doesn’t easily allow departments to fire or discipline officers. (Rhode Island lawmakers are beginning to discuss potential changes to LEOBOR.)

He said if the officer charged with killing George Floyd in Minneapolis had been in Providence, police would not have been able to swiftly fire him.

“Under our LEOBOR, no,” Paré said. “We would not be able to fire, which to me means terminate from employment, benefits, everything.”

He said while police could place such an officer on leave with pay, they would have to wait until he was indicted by a grand jury before stopping his salary, and wouldn’t be able to stop his benefits until a conviction was secured.

Calling the video of Floyd’s death “horrendous,” Clements said he was confident that what happened in that situation — where three officers are seen on camera not stopping Derek Chauvin from kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes — would not happen in Providence.

“I would stake my life that would never happen in the city of Providence,” Clements said. “The intervention would have happened way before. Seconds.”

Imondi agreed, saying Providence police personnel do a good job “weeding out” any bad actors.

“We don’t in Providence have officers that are that overly aggressive,” Imondi said. “We try to train our officers in every aspect to respect each culture, each religion, each race accordingly.”

The Providence Police Department also has the Office of Professional Responsibility, led by Major Oscar Perez, which is described on the department’s website as the “watchdog” of officers’ actions. Asked how many officers were currently under investigation, Clements said there are five or six.

They include Sgt. Joseph Hanley, arrested for assault last month, and an unnamed officer who WPRI 12 reported is on leave after a man said he lost his eye due to a less-lethal projectile shot into his car last week.

Paré said he could not comment on that case because of the ongoing investigation.

Police are also investigating an allegation of racial profiling by a Providence firefighter, whose account has been vociferously denied by the police union. Police have not said when they plan to release body camera video of the incident.

“This issue is nothing new,” Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune said after the meeting. “I think what the George Floyd case, tragic incident, has illuminated is the negative police-community relation and how certain practices lead to death. But this is nothing new,” she said, mentioning the fatal shooting by police of Sgt. Cornel Young, Jr. in Providence in 2000.

Council President Sabina Matos called the meeting a “good beginning of the conversation,” but said she didn’t know yet where she was leaning in terms of decreasing or shifting any police funding.

Igliozzi said he was interested in shifting more funding toward intervention and de-escalation training, and potentially considering removing eight police officers from Providence schools.

“You can’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water,” he said, referring to abolishing the police department. “We need to take methodical, reasonable steps towards how to make the system work better.”

He suggested potentially decreasing the size of the police academy in the upcoming year, which was aimed at hiring 50 new recruits.

“You don’t have to have 50,” he said. “Maybe do 20, 25.”

The Providence police budget is $85 million in the current year, about 11% of the city’s total budget including the school department. The vast majority of the budget — more than 90% — is made up of salaries and benefits for more than 500 employees.

The council is currently weighing all aspects of the city budget ahead of the new fiscal year that starts July 1, and Igliozzi said he expects spending cuts to be part of that plan.

A public hearing on the budget as a whole is expected to be held on June 22, a rescheduled date after the original hearing on Tuesday was hijacked by racist trolls on Zoom.

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

Watch the full Council Finance meeting on defunding the police below:

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