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‘This is disturbing’: City leaders seek solutions as shootings soar in Providence

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — So far this year, 75 people have been shot in Providence.

One of them was a 14-year-old girl, shot in the foot while outside watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Another was washing his clothes at a local laundromat, only to find a gun at his back. Three victims were at a club when shots were fired inside, turning a night out into a nightmare.

The 75 victims — 71 men and 4 women — were shot during what has been a rising spate of gun violence in Providence, causing alarm in part because the city had seen years of decline prior to the pandemic.

“This is disturbing, what’s going on in the city right now,” Col. Hugh Clements, the police chief, said in an interview with Target 12.

Clements noted that shootings and homicides are up in cities across the nation. “Criminologists around the country and scratching their hands and grappling with what is taking place,” he said.

In Providence the problem began last summer, after the city’s gun violence numbers had reached historic lows.

In the past decade, shootings had gone from 110 people shot in 2011 to just 35 in 2019. But the number of shootings spiked in the summer of 2020, bringing the total number of shootings last year to 73.

With one month left in 2021, shootings this year have already surpassed last year’s total, with 75 shootings as of Nov. 24, according to data provided by the Providence Police Department. (Other types of crime, such as burglaries and robberies, remain on the decline.)

The number of shootings in Providence each year for the past decade.
*2021 numbers are year-to-date as of Nov. 24

The shootings are happening throughout the city, from the North Providence border down to the South Side. A Target 12 review of the addresses where people have been shot in 2021 shows the neighborhood with the most shootings to date is Washington Park, with 11 people shot so far this year.

Most of those happened on the same day, when eight people were shot during a gang-related shootout on Carolina Avenue on May 13.

The shootout shook the neighborhood, according to Patricia, a Washington Park resident who moved there shortly before the incident. She was outside when it happened; it was still daylight. Now, she stays in.

“I barely go out,” she said. “It makes me worried, since I have a little boy. He will have to get raised here.” She said she rarely sees neighbors outside, either.

Indeed, few people were out when Target 12 visited the neighborhood recently on an unseasonably warm and sunny November day. Most homes sport security company signs and warnings about cameras rolling, and “neighborhood crime watch” signs are found on nearly every block.

The second-highest number of shootings this year has been in the Wanskuck neighborhood, in the northern part of the city near Providence College. Ten people have been shot there this year, including five who were murdered.

Niberto Diaz, 21, was one of them. Shot while sitting in a car outside an apartment complex last year, Diaz became the 20th person murdered in Providence this year.

Elmwood, Lower South Providence and Olneyville saw the next-highest number of shootings, with seven each so far this year. While most of the city’s 25 neighborhoods have had a shooting this year, the majority of East Side neighborhoods — other than Mount Hope — have not seen any people shot in 2021. There have also been no shootings in downtown Providence, according to the Police Department data.

While many shootings are targeted — meaning the shooter was seeking that specific victim — that’s not always the case.

Melvin Ricardo Perez Reyes was doing his laundry at the Laundromax on Broad Street in October when Johan Quinones came in, attempted to rob him and then shot and killed him, according to police.

Miya Brophy-Baermann, a 24-year-old from Warwick, was standing outside a friend’s apartment building in the Mount Hope neighborhood in August when she was shot and killed by a drive-by shooter. Police believe she was not the intended target.

“One bullet can can wreak havoc on a family, and community, in ways that you just can’t even imagine,” said Bryan Brophy-Baermann, Miya’s father, in an interview last month.

Clements said in addition to patrols spread out throughout the city’s nine police districts, there are also “directed patrols” in areas seeing more violence.

“Whether it be a nightclub detail, Broad Street detail, Atwells Avenue,” Clements said. “Where we see an uptick in violent crime and gun activity in certain areas, we direct resources to that area.”

Right now those directed patrols are in districts 2, 4, 5 and 7, which comprise much of Providence’s South and West sides, plus the northern section that includes Wanskuck.

“I worry about the safety of the communities where gun violence occurs all the time,” Clements said. “And that’s what keeps me up at night.”

The numbers also suggest the shootings in Providence are becoming deadlier. While the number of people shot in 2011 was higher than it is today — 110 in 2011 compared to 75 this year — there were only 12 homicides that year.

This year so far there have already been 22 homicides in Providence, the highest since 2009. Of the 22, at least 20 were shootings. Homicides are up 69% compared to the previous five-year average, according to the Police Department.

When asked why the shootings are killing people more often, Clements said, “There’s a more calculated approach by the predominantly young men in the community that are prone to put their hands on a gun.”

He also said officers are seeing more powerful guns on the street, including with extended clips that allow for a large number of bullets to be fired in a short period of time.

“We are seeing way more firearms and guns in the community than we’ve ever seen,” Clements said. He said the department has seized 183 guns so far in 2021, “which I believe is the highest number, in my recollection, in years.”

So where are the guns coming from? Many of them are being purchased locally, Clements said, in what are called “straw purchases.” Since most convicted felons cannot buy or possess guns, they often ask someone with a clean criminal history to buy guns for them.

And gun sales soared during the pandemic, both nationwide and in Providence. According to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the number of background checks initiated in Rhode Island went from 24,338 in 2019 to 51,369 in 2020.

One large alleged straw purchase made news last year after a Providence man claimed his house was robbed of more than 50 guns. But police have accused him of lying, alleging he bought the guns in straw purchases and sold them to criminals. Officers are still finding those guns on the street.

Clements said the 49 new police officers who recently graduated from the academy will help bolster patrols once they finish field training in January, and more experienced officers will be able to backfill specialized units. The Violent Crime Task Force, for example, currently has one sergeant and four officers, a number that Clements wants to increase.

City taps American Rescue Plan Act funding

Taking guns off the street and arresting the gunmen is just one piece of the puzzle in tackling gun violence, however. Social service agencies, youth organizations and clinicians are all part of a larger effort to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

A large influx of federal cash from the American Rescue Plan Act could help better fund some of those organizations. Providence is getting $166 million from the law, enacted in March, and already allocated $42 million in July to various areas related to pandemic recovery. Of that total, $2.6 million was directed to “anti-violence investments” including mentoring, nonviolence training and an expansion of the city’s summer jobs program to offer year-round jobs for youth.

The $500,000 for nonviolence training was awarded earlier this month to the Nonviolence Institute, which was the only bidder for the contract.

Cedric Huntley, the institute’s executive director, said the money will go towards stipends for young people who complete the 40-hour training program. (He declined to sit down with Target 12 for an on-camera interview for this report.)

The institute’s bidding documents say the program will be for youth ages 15 to 24.

The city is also opening its recreation centers later at night for teens and young adults, hoping it will provide an alternative to the streets.

“We just have too many guns on the streets, too many people who have lost hope who are turning to violence and to guns to solve their problems,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in an interview earlier this month on 12 News at 4. “And that’s something we’re constantly working on.”

Elorza is expected to propose an ordinance soon to spend additional ARPA money, according to his office. The mayor was a member of a task force that met over the summer and fall to come up with ways to spend the rest of the money, and issued a report in October with broad recommendations.

The task force recommended $17.9 million in “youth and community investments,” which could contribute to preventing gun violence. Most of the people firing guns in Providence are young men, according to Clements.

Elorza also said his budget proposal in April will fund the next police academy to hire and train another 50 officers. The Police Department recently started recruiting for that academy.

Both Elorza and Clements have said more officers don’t necessarily correlate to less crime. But the department currently has a high number of officers eligible for retirement, which Clements says means another academy is necessary just to ensure the numbers don’t get too low. The most recent academy brings the force up to 449 officers.

The Elorza administration is also seeking to allow the existing officers more time to tackle serious crimes by diverting certain nonviolent 911 calls to social service agencies instead of police. A $600,000 pilot program is currently in the design phase, according to a spokesperson, and a report with recommendations from the Providence Center and Family Service Rhode Island is expected in December.

How will Providence’s next mayor tackle gun violence?

Elorza has just one year left in his term to initiate programs to combat gun violence, and the problem will likely remain a concern for the next administration to tackle.

Target 12 asked all of the announced mayoral candidates to answer several questions about how they would fight violence, how many officers they’d like to see on the Providence Police Department and whether they support diverting some calls away from police.

The candidates’ unedited responses are below in alphabetical order.

Jump to a candidate: Gonzalo Cuervo | Nirva LaFortune |
Brett Smiley | Michael Solomon

Gonzalo Cuervo, Democrat

Q: What specific policies would you implement as mayor to combat the current increase in shootings and homicides?

Cuervo: “Addressing public safety concerns is a top priority for residents in every neighborhood of the city. There are two policy areas I will focus on.

“First: residents all over the city tell me that they support our police but would like to see greater trust and communication between the police and the communities they serve. We’re currently suffering from a trust deficit on all sides. Building that trust and communication requires being supportive of our officers who do a good job while holding accountable those officers who don’t, improving our hiring process, incentivizing city residency, and promoting community-centered practices that encourage officers at every level to build and strengthen relationships with the people they serve.

“Secondly: we have to address the root causes of crime and invest accordingly to tackle the conditions that drive people to commit and escalate criminal activity: persistent poverty, lack of opportunity, neighborhood disinvestment, and untreated mental health concerns. The federal ARPA funds coming to Providence offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do that, in addition to realigning the City’s policy objectives, budget priorities, and partnerships towards this objective.

“That is how we address public safety concerns most immediately and also create the conditions to reduce violent crime over the long term.”

Q: Should the Providence Police increase the number of officers on the force beyond the 50 new officers that just graduated from the academy? How many officers should there be?

Cuervo: “Public safety staffing levels should be in line with best practices for a department in a city our size, and we are not there now. We should fill vacancies that open up as people retire or move on in a more consistent and predictable way to avoid the significant dips in staffing that we are experiencing. I attended the academy graduation earlier this month and saw how proud those 49 new officers were as they began their careers. However, it’s not possible to just hire our way out of violent crime. Increasing staffing levels will not have a desired effect if we aren’t improving the way that our police work within our neighborhoods and addressing the underlying conditions that lead to escalating crime.”

Q: Do you support diverting some resources away from PPD to social service agencies that can answer certain non-violent calls, such as mental health?

Cuervo: “The Providence Police Department’s budget has grown significantly over the past several years and yet we have fewer police officers today than before. Budgets define priorities. I know we can find the resources to expand our diversion partnerships with social service agencies and best meet the needs of our people and our neighborhoods while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. I also would like to increase collaboration between our police and fire personnel, who respond to thousands of EMT calls each year, many of which involve people experiencing a mental health or substance related crisis.”

Nirva LaFortune, Democrat

Q: What specific policies would you implement as mayor to combat the current increase in shootings and homicides?

LaFortune: “I lost a loved one to gun violence over sixteen years ago and all he did was walk out of a bodega in a neighborhood in New York City and was hit by a bullet not intended for him. It was just like William Parson, a young teenager shot and killed in front of PCTA while waiting for his dad by another teenager who should have been in school and receiving resources but fell through the cracks. Just recently Tatyana Francois, a beautiful young woman from my family church who was my daughter’s Sunday School teacher, was shot and killed in Pawtucket while sitting in a car.  This issue is important to me because I know firsthand the impact of gun violence. 

“Gun violence is a multifaceted challenge that requires a holistic set of solutions to stop the recurring cycle in our communities. Communities of color and marginalized communities have and continue to be disproportionately impacted by gun violence, so the first approach is to really understand and address the underlying social and economic inequities that are fueling the gun violence in our city and state- it’s not just a Providence issue. That includes poverty, income inequality, limited housing opportunities, underperforming and under-resourced schools and public services, lack of access to social, emotional, and mental health resources and services, lack of opportunity for those of marginalized groups and including those who are homeless and struggle with housing insecurity. 

“In addition to reducing access to firearms by our young and high-risk communities we need:

  1. To adequately fund community-based violence intervention and prevention efforts rooted in authentic relationships and building trust with those impacted. This can include a strong community policing initiative, investment in our community/recreation centers and programming, year-round youth development and job training opportunities, mentorship, and more.
  2. To support community-based organizations that address the social and economic inequalities at the root of gun violence.
  3. We also need resources for support for those who have had direct and indirect exposure to violence. Studies have shown that type of exposure is a predictor of whether an individual would later engage in gun-related crimes. 

“There is some amazing work that is already being done in our city to prevent pathways to violence. Organizations and initiatives like One Gun Gone, Princes to Kings, PSU, ARISE and other youth groups, College Visions and other college access organizations, College Unbound. We do not have to recreate the wheel. The city was a part of My Brother’s Keeper initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2014 to create “pathways from cradle to college and career,” basically to divert our young men of color from pathways to violence. Why not reestablish that initiative and actually invest in it so that it can serve as a high-impact mentorship model in our state.”

Q: Should the Providence Police increase the number of officers on the force beyond the 50 new officers that just graduated from the academy? How many officers should there be?

LaFortune: “We need a comprehensive safety plan to determine that. The reality is we can hire an additional 50 officers but without a plan, a holistic set of solutions to address the underlying social and economic inequalities that fuel gun violence and a commitment and investment to sustain the initiatives, we will continue the recurring cycle of violence.”

Q: Do you support diverting some resources away from PPD to social service agencies that can answer certain non-violent calls, such as mental health?

LaFortune: “This past year I brought together mental and behavioral health experts and practitioners, public safety, the city’s Healthy Communities Office and policy office along with community members to create a framework for a crisis response initiative within public safety. In July, I joined the city to announce the launch of an initiative in partnership with Family Service and the Providence  Center. This is not diverting from public safety, it’s enhancing it.  My goal is to reimagine public safety and use public safety resources in a smart and effective way. By creating this team, nonviolence calls will be directed to the crisis response team so that trained mental and behavioral experts can respond to these calls. Police officers can be on standby similar to what other cities do, but it would allow them to focus on addressing the violent crimes in the city.”

Brett Smiley, Democrat

Q: What specific policies would you implement as mayor to combat the current increase in shootings and homicides? 

Smiley: “I have been outspoken on the need to address crime in our city, and this will be a major focus of my administration as mayor. We know that community violence intervention works – both community policing and community partnerships have shown success in reducing violent crime in Providence over the last decade. We need to recommit to these practices and rebuild trust between our community and our public safety employees. Step one will be returning to the practice of having local officers assigned to specific neighborhoods, including more bicycle and pedestrian patrols. It’s critical that these officers know and represent the communities they serve, and that requires robust recruitment efforts aimed at continuing to increase the diversity of our police force. We also need to focus on getting illegal weapons off our streets. And in order for all of this to be effective, we need increased access to mental health services and substance use support, and we need to commit to addressing these issues without armed officers whenever possible.”

Q: Should the Providence Police increase the number of officers on the force beyond the 50 new officers that just graduated from the academy? How many officers should there be?

Smiley: “Chief Clements has said that the department needs at least 450 officers and I trust the Chief’s assessment of what the department needs. In order to get there, given the number of retirement eligible officers, I expect an additional class will be necessary.

Q: Do you support diverting some resources away from PPD to social service agencies that can answer certain non-violent calls, such as mental health?’

Smiley: “I support the current pilot the city has developed which will dispatch social service agencies and addiction specialists. We know that not every 911 call needs to result in an armed police officer being dispatched. If this program is successful it will free up officers to spend more time on violent crime and increase access to these critical services for our residents.”

Michael Solomon, Democrat

Q: What specific policies would you implement as mayor to combat the current increase in shootings and homicides?

Solomon: “There is a general feeling of unease across our city, which is why under my leadership I would propose implementing:

· Stricter gun control measures at the local level

· Gun regulation, registration and return programs

· Funding for larger pool in police academy

· Increase collaboration among Police Departments and State Police

· Community and neighborhood policing and outreach

· Increase support and incentives for youth outreach programs and for young people to participate in civic engagement, sports, employment, job mentorship, training and education programs.”

Q: Should the Providence Police increase the number of officers on the force beyond the 50 new officers that just graduated from the academy? How many officers should there be?

Solomon: “Yes, I am committed to ensuring there will be at least 500 police officers in the Police Department which is an increase from previous years.”

Q: Do you support diverting some resources away from PPD to social service agencies that can answer certain non-violent calls, such as mental health?

Solomon: “No, we must increase funding for the Police Department while also increasing support for social service agencies that can help impact the mental health crisis and non-violent calls. There shouldn’t be one or the other.

“Our police officers are being asked to do more than ever before, from treating mental and substance use disorders to cleaning up the unhoused. Their time is better spent policing and protecting, and I will help guide a transition to a more complete and compassionate vision of neighborhood safety. This will include a transformative investment in our community substations, revisioning them as mini–City Halls rather than mini-police stations. One critical component will be staffing these centers with civilians alongside police officers. These civil servants will be licensed clinical social workers who can work with individuals from all walks of life, especially the underprivileged and underserved, to connect children, families and seniors with counseling services, substance use treatment programs, and other forms of relief.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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