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Records: Disciplinary actions against Providence police have spiked in recent years

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — From verbal and written reprimands to suspensions and terminations, the number of documented disciplinary actions taken by the Providence Police Department against its officers has been on the rise in recent years, according to a Target 12 review of records published by the department.

All told, department officials documented 400 disciplinary actions against officers between 2003 and 2017, ranging from six each in 2003 and 2004 to a high of 61 in 2014. There were 50 disciplinary actions taken in 2015, 23 in 2016 and 39 last year.

While the total number of officers facing discipline in any given year represents a small portion of the total force – there are currently 415 uniformed police officers in the city – Chief Col. Hugh Clements said the department strives to hold itself to high standards, especially since it became the largest law enforcement agency in New England to win national accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies in 2014.

“No one is harder on the Providence Police Department, than the Providence Police Department,” Clements, who has led the department since 2011, told Target 12 in a recent interview. “And we’re constantly striving for professionalism, respect, accountability. So the better we can get, the better we all are.”

The police department recently made public 15 years of data about internal police discipline as well as records related to the outcomes of 679 citizen complaints filed against officers. The figures show that while citizen complaints have remained relatively steady year to year, disciplinary actions taken by the department increased sharply since Clements became chief.

The citizen complaint process in Providence is mandated by a federal consent decree city leaders signed in 1973 after a group of black residents filed a class-action lawsuit accusing police officers of civil rights violations. The agreement created a system that made it easier for residents to file complaints and required the department to investigate every claim within 30 days.

Of the 679 complaints filed by residents since 2006, records show 78 – 11.5% – were sustained, meaning they resulted in some form of discipline. Records show 349 were not sustained, 200 complaints were withdrawn before going to a hearing and 37 were labeled unfounded.

All complaints are investigated by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, a department commonly referred to as I.A., or internal affairs. If there is cause to have a hearing, an officer higher than the rank of sergeant is selected to oversee the process and determine whether the officer is guilty or not guilty.

Of the 322 hearings heard since 2003, about 10% resulted in a guilty finding, while 40% of officers were found not guilty. The rest of the complaints were either withdrawn or to the complainant was a no-show for the hearing, which also renders the officer not guilty.

“Every complaint, no matter how serious or how frivolous or blatantly unfounded, is investigated to its fullest,” Clements said. “The Office of Professional Responsibility is very busy and they run down every complaint.”

Clements said the not number of guilty findings during hearings is not reflective of the entire scope of discipline officers face when residents file complaints, noting that there are cases where officers resign or face discipline long before they forced to attend a hearing.

In one case, community advocate and former mayoral candidate Kobi Dennis acknowledges that he withdrew a complaint regarding the way members of a police gun task force treated his son and two friends during an altercation in 2015. Still, the incident led to one officer receiving a written reprimand and a one-day suspension that was held in abeyance for 90 days.

“Going to the Providence Police Department is probably one of the most intimidating experiences for someone who’s reporting an incident,” Dennis said.

But Clements stressed that officers are often held accountable even in the absence of a citizen complaint.

The majority of the disciplinary actions taken by the police are known as “summary punishment actions” which refers to any case where an officer is suspended for two day or less without pay. A total of 39 officers have been fired or dismissed since 2003, records show.

State law requires that any action resulting in a suspension of more than two days without pay entitles the accused officer a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) hearing, although it is not uncommon for officers to waive that right.

The records published by the department redacted the names of any officer who has faced discipline, but some of the cases are well-known.

  • In 2014, a graduate of the newest police academy was fired after his girlfriend allegedly stole a woman’s cell phone at a graduation party. The officer didn’t tell his superiors and because he was still on probation, he was terminated.
     
  • In 2015, a sergeant was suspended for calling out sick the previous October and then showing up at the headquarters of then-mayoral candidate Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. to assist with mail ballot strategy.
     
  • Another case in 2015 involved an officer being retrained after allegedly punching and pepper spraying the manager of a Providence nightclub on Broad Street. The officer, Matthew Sheridan, is now the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the victim, Esmelin Fajardo.
     
  • In 2016, an officer was terminated for a 2014 incident involving stolen evidence from the property room. The officer, Michael McCarthy, was sentenced to one-year home confinement and ordered to pay $9,205 in restitution.

Still, the number of incidents involving officer wrongdoing pales in comparison to the 130,000 calls for service the police department receives each year.

Michael Imondi, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said he isn’t sure why the number of documented disciplinary actions against officers have spiked in recent years, but he agreed with Clements that the department has high standards.

Even with the increase in reprimands and suspensions, Imondi said the union has not filed grievances related to disciplinary actions taken against officers over the last several years.

“We hold each other accountable,” Imondi said. “We are a professional organization. We hold ourselves to high standards.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau

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