PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ It was only a few days ago that thousands of people converged in Providence to demand an end to systemic racism and police brutality, and while the demonstration may have come and gone, the push for reform is just beginning.
Providence Police Col. Hugh Clements told Eyewitness News that Friday’s demonstration was the largest protest he’s seen in his more than 30-year career, estimating that roughly 10,000 people showed up.
The protest stemmed from the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died in police custody after an officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes, despite the fact he was handcuffed and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Four officers, including the one who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, have been charged in his death.
Providence police said only nine people were arrested and emphasized that the demonstration was primarily peaceful.
But Providence City Council President Sabina Matos said the success of the protest in Providence, as well as the others happening around the world, should not just be measured by how peaceful they are, but what happens next.
“Making real change and real reform and a right fight against racism in this country,” she said.
Protesters have been calling for the defunding of police departments, which is something Matos supports, but she said “defunding” is the wrong word.
“It’s not about dismantling the police department completely,” she said. “It’s about reallocating the budget to other priorities. I think we need to find ways to reform the police department. We need to find ways in which police officers are better trained and better understand the communities in which they work.”
Matos is not the only local leader calling for change. State Senator Harold Metts, D-Providence, said these protests might finally force change, adding that state leaders are now listening.
Metts said he plans to begin working on legislation to overhaul the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), which was adopted by Rhode Island in 1976. He said right now, LEOBOR protects officers accused of misconduct and prevents justice from being served when officers abuse their power.
“Due process is one thing, however, it should not take video footage months later to expose brutality and murder. The law should not be for a special process of discipline that results in hiding crime and protecting wrongdoers that ultimately also taints the image of good officers,” Metts said in a statement. “The Bill of Rights for our citizens is paramount. The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights must complement and not undermine this.”
“The struggle for justice here is universal, and the protest for justice is universal,” he continued. “The protesters, especially the youth, are people from all backgrounds, all colors. The mix of people who are standing up for justice and equality today is not only heartwarming, but will lead to positive change, and will lead to the healing that our country needs.”
Matos agrees with Metts, and said the time to change LEOBOR is now.
“We have to be sure that, if there is a police officer that doesn’t have the qualities that are needed to be a good police officer, there is a way that we can transition that person out of that position,” Matos said.
Matos said the city has been leading the way on reform for a while now. In 2017, she said the Providence City Council passed the Providence Community-Police Relations Act, which focuses on accountability and improving the relationship between officers and the community.
But even so, Matos said it’s not enough and more needs to be done.
Mayor Jorge Elorza said his administration is currently exploring the possibility of reallocating funds to “best respond to community needs.”
“We are living through a unique moment and I want to make sure that we will not let it pass without bringing about real, structural change,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to engage with the community and finding ways to adopt policies that address structural racism and make us a stronger, more resilient city.”