PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence is already in the process of recruiting the next cohort of police officers, but concerns about a tight city budget and calls to reallocate funds away from the department could derail the academy slated for this winter.
The next police academy, currently scheduled to start in February, would cost $1.4 million this fiscal year, according to the current budget proposal. The department would hire and train 50 new police officers, and the dollar figure does not include the cost of leasing or buying a new facility to train the recruits.
But as the city contemplates potential widespread cuts to departments because of financial uncertainty stemming from the pandemic, along with potentially shifting resources from police to other services, the question of whether Providence will get those new police officers is still up in the air.
“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 during the first episode of Pulse of Providence this week. “That’s what we’re currently looking at.”
Elorza mentioned the efforts to divert certain 911 calls — such as noise complaints or mental health crises — to workers other than police officers. The Providence City Council has been discussing creating a pilot program for a social service unit to handle some of those calls that don’t necessarily require an officer to respond.
“You really have to ask, when we send a police officer to a call where someone is suicidal and having a mental episode, is that the best use of our resources?” Elorza said. “Do we really need to send someone with a badge and a gun to handle that?”
Community activists have been calling for the city to defund police, which can range from abolishing the department altogether or decreasing funds to help pay for other services.
Salaries and benefits make up the vast majority of the Providence Police Department’s budget, meaning any savings realized by the social service unit would likely take the form of personnel.
Forgoing an academy would decrease the size of the department by attrition, as a certain number of officers retire each year and would not be replaced until the next academy.
“There’s options of reducing the size, there’s options of delaying it,” Elorza said. “It’s all being considered right now.”
Providence’s Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements said he’s still hopeful there will be an academy of some sort in 2021.
“We need an academy,” Clements said. He said more than a dozen officers typically retire each year from the force, which currently has 424 officers. The last academy was in 2019, graduating 53 officers.
If the academy is canceled or delayed, Clements said certain units in the Police Department would need to get a “haircut” to move officers to the patrol bureau in order to have enough officers on the street.
Nearly 1,000 applicants were recruited for the new academy, a number that’s being whittled down to 50 (or fewer, if city leaders decide to reduce the academy.) Clements said the recruits have already gone through the physical agility phase and are moving on to the testing phase next.
Michael Imondi, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3 that represents Providence officers, said having fewer officers on the street would increase crime in the city.
“Further reducing manpower would impact … communities in a negative way, with lack of patrols and less community policing, both of which help to deter crime,” Imondi said. “Police presence is the main factor equal in the deterrence of crime, they go hand in hand.”
The union voted no confidence in both Elorza and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré in June, but remains in support of Col. Clements.
The Providence City Council has not passed a new budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, as city leaders wait to see how much state and federal funding might come if Congress passes a new stimulus package.
City Council Finance Chairman John Igliozzi has previously said holding a smaller academy with fewer officers could be a cost-saving measure amid the pandemic, but he noted Wednesday that further diversifying the police department would require holding a new academy.
“We have officers that are retiring, so here’s an opportunity potentially to have an academy that could be one of the most diverse academies which then could be reflective of the people of Providence,” Igliozzi said in an interview. “I’m open to all discussion on this. But if we really are truly and honestly trying to achieve a positive change in the Police Department … that usually takes more money, not less.”
Igliozzi said vandals went to his home over the weekend and spray-painted “defund police” on the ground, while also putting spikes in his tires. Police are investigating and have not made any arrests.
The city put out a request for proposals for a facility for the new academy, but no bids were submitted. The Board of Contract and Supply voted earlier this week to re-advertise the item.