Monday’s Community Outreach Forum on Policing, Part 1

My two biggest takeaways from Monday night’s forum on policing, at the South Providence Recreation Center, with Chiefs Hugh Clements (Providence Police Department) and Steven O’Donnell (Rhode Island State Police):

1. If good policing is built on strong communities, while the pathway to strong communities is cleared by good policing, there is a real chicken-or-egg issue with finding a solution.

2. A basic concept that our government and society seems to be losing needs a restoration, the idea that the top elected official of a city, town or state police force is the leader of the police force, not just ceremonially, but in a true operational sense.

The Accountability Spin

Here’s the headline from a Rhode Island Department of Education press release about science NECAP scores, out today: “Science assessments show statewide improvement over six-year span.”  The average reader can be forgiven for taking that to be great news, and the average cynic can be forgiven for wondering what happened through those six years to make the department reach back so long for its headline.

You can decide for yourself what group Governor Lincoln Chafee falls into.  Here’s his statement in the release:

“Proficiency in science plays an important role as we prepare Rhode Island students to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow,” said Governor Lincoln D. Chafee. “I am pleased to see this improvement over time in the results of our science assessments. With continued excellent instruction, our students will make progress in future years as well.”

My vote is that Chafee should receive the cynics’ crown, because he’s surely aware of the year-to-year data.  As a matter of fact, overall science NECAP scores have fallen for two years in a row, in Rhode Island.

  • 11th graders are stuck at 30% proficient, after hitting a high of 32% in 2012.  (As if that’s an acceptable percentage…)
  • 8th graders have fallen from last year’s high of 30% down to 23%, losing all gains made since 2010.
  • 4th graders managed to hit 46% in 2012, but now they’re stuck at 41%.  That’s a mere 1% improvement from 2009.

Overall, 25 Rhode Island school districts saw declines from last year’s scores.  Middle schools were particularly bad, with even Barrington’s score dropping 16.7 percentage points.  Narragansett middle school led the list of regular districts, with a 30.1 point drop, although The Compass School’s middle schoolers dropped 49.1 points.  Some high schools saw gains, particularly North Smithfield, at 19.9 points, but they were exactly canceled out by losses, such as Tiverton’s 18.2, Jamestown’s  19.3, and Smithfield’s 19.5.

It takes a cynic, indeed, to tell the people of Rhode Island that these are encouraging results.  At least Education Commissioner Deborah Gist expressed “concerns about the one-year decline in percent proficient in our middle schools,” although  one wonders why longer-term drops and stagnation at the elementary and high school levels aren’t matters of concern, as well.

Projo Hearts Government

At some point, reality doesn’t need anymore evidence, and anybody who doesn’t like it has to figure out what to do about it.  One such reality (proven long ago, to my satisfaction) is that the Providence Journal is a newspaper written for the progressive Democrat audience.  Yes, there’s a journalistic drive to present some form of opposing arguments, but that’s the paper’s target audience.

The objects of the reporters’ suspicion are not those who have the power to take away your money, restrict your freedoms, and even lock you up at gunpoint.  Rather, the villains are those who argue on behalf of your freedoms.

To expect its reporters to cover issues of ideological concern as if conservatives might be right would be to expect PolitiFactRI to choose a Pants on Fire statement to check from among far-left U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s inflammatory screeds against people who are ostensibly his constituents.

PolitiFactRI is much more tuned to digging into statements such as one made by RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse on the Dan Yorke Show.  Having followed the progression of RhodeMap RI for some years, with a substantial degree of related research, Stenhouse offered Yorke his “interpretation” and “belief” about the ideological position of the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  Alerted that the PolitiFact kangaroo court was in session on his comment, he sent a long list of evidence that had helped to lead him to that interpretation and belief.

PolitiFact reporter Katie Mulvaney skimmed the evidence and contacted a few people who could be trusted to disagree with Stenhouse’s interpretation (professionals in the central planning industry), and PolitiFact presumed to rule his interpretation and belief false.  That’s laughable by any non-partisan, non-ideological standard for public discourse.  But the Providence Journal dominates the local news market, so there you go.

Or take Kate Bramson’s news story about the meeting at which the state Planning Council approved RhodeMap.  She quotes Stenhouse as warning that RhodeMap eases the way for eminent domain takings of private property.  Bramson’s follow-up sentence isn’t so much an addition of context as it is a debating point from somebody on the pro-government side: “The term ‘eminent domain,’ in which governments may seize private property for broad economic purposes, appears nowhere in the plan.”

Well, sure.  Neither does the term “freedom” or “property rights.”  Bramson appears entirely ignorant of the foundation for Stenhouse’s understanding of RhodeMap, including the fact that his statement on eminent domain is absolutely true.

So how should we proceed?  The problem, ultimately, is not that the Providence Journal is biased.  It’s that there’s no alternative.  Accepting reality, those who have been marked by the news department as the enemy should stop responding to the paper (and especially PolitiFact) as if it’s a neutral arbiter.

HUD-In-The-News Confirms Critics of Both RhodeMap RI and Today’s PolitiFact RI Rating

… the subject of a column that I just posted to R.I. Taxpayer’s website. Here are the first couple of paragraphs.

A browse through HUD-in-the-news items turns up some interesting and instructive items. First of all, there are several instances of HUD cracking down on municipalities or other public authorities who have taken HUD money but failed to comply with the requirements that accompanied it. Certainly, on the one hand, this is as it should be. Government dollars must be spent as stipulated. On the other, it belies the assurances of advocates of RhodeMap RI that there is nothing to fear about the plan. Significant portions of it would almost certainly have to be implemented with HUD money, at which point, HUD would suddenly have a great deal of power and authority over local land use laws and property rights. Let these HUD crack downs elsewhere be an object lesson, accordingly, to both cities and towns in Rhode Island and to state and local officials who would consider accepting HUD monies, whether under the rubric of RhodeMap RI or not. Be prepared to comply with HUD’s requirements or don’t take the money.

And the latter is exactly what officials in the coincidentally named city of Hudson, OH, did less than two weeks ago, in our next interesting HUD-in-the-news item.

By the way, did anyone else notice that HUD’s letter to Westchester County contains the word “roadmap”??? Towards the bottom of the first page.

… HUD provided the county with a roadmap to coming into compliance …

A HUD “Roadmap”. “RhodeMap RI”. Isn’t that a little too similar to be a coincidence? Or do I need to be talked off the conspiracy ledge?

Integrity and Moral Compass

A recent essay by Jonah Goldberg, in National Review, notes how the popular culture’s understanding of integrity has shifted from heroes in this mold:

Through virtually the entire history of Western civilization, heroes had the right-end-of-the-spectrum version of integrity. They did good out of a desire to do good — and that good was directed by some external ideal. Sure, it wasn’t always, strictly speaking, a Biblical definition of good. You can’t blame Odysseus or Achilles for not following a book that hadn’t been published yet. But however “good” was defined, it existed in some sort of Platonic realm outside of the protagonist’s own id. (Or ego? Or superego? Or super-duper id? I can never keep that stuff straight.) The hero clung to a definition of “good” that was outside himself, and therefore something he had to reach for.

Goldberg argues that we’ve now inverted the idea of integrity to the point on the spectrum that used to be considered its lowest form: internal consistency based on some self-directed principle.  That’s more of a structural integrity; a building may not collapse because its parts fit together well, but we once prioritized the aesthetics and purpose of the building.  There once was an architectural integrity that married sound building principles with aesthetics that matched the surroundings, with a harmony of form and purpose and a moral component to that purpose.

These days, Jonah goes on, everybody from cable-TV’s dark protagonists to cartoons’ moral lodestars teaches the lesson that morality comes from within:

The truth is, it’s hard to find a children’s cartoon or movie that doesn’t tell kids that they need to look inside themselves for moral guidance. Indeed, there’s a riot of Rousseauian claptrap out there that says children are born with rightly ordered consciences. And why not? As Mr. Rogers told us, “You are the most important person in the whole wide world and you hardly even know you.” Hillary Clinton is even worse. In her book It Takes a Village, she claims that some of the best theologians she’s ever met have been five-year-olds …

Like many of the socio-cultural truisms that guide us, these days, this notion has some foundation in old-school Christianity.  But as philosophy, they’re simply downward slopes that help us get a little farther on the fumes left in the moral tank that Jesus filled up a couple millennia ago.

Yes, conscience is divinely inspired and sacrosanct, and we must listen for it inside ourselves.  But there are many other voices in there, from the base animal instinct that is the residue of our formation, to the whispers of outright evil.  Our task is to determine which of them aligns with the direction of good that can be understood through reason, as honed and instructed by our long heritage of experience translated into traditions.

A moral compass is like a regular compass.  On its own, it doesn’t offer much instruction about how to read the thing, let alone what destination we ought to use it to reach.

School Building Costs and School Choice

An op-ed by Brown English graduate student Aaron Apps in today’s Providence Journal drew my attention to an FY13 report put out by the Rhode Island Dept. of Education (RIDE).  Here’s Apps:

 Last summer, I wrote a Commentary piece (“City’s schools require immediate repairs,” Aug. 29) describing the conditions I witnessed inside Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence’s West End. To reiterate: The paint is peeling off of the walls, the roof is leaking, ceiling tiles are falling down, the water is non-potable, and there is a giant curtain in the main auditorium made of asbestos. Not to mention probable mold, exposed rusty pipes, and piles of unattended-to bird droppings. …

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2013 “Public Schoolhouse Assessment” gave Gilbert Stuart a rating of 2 in its scale that ranges from 1 to 4, where 1 is “good” condition and 4 is “poor” condition. The report rates 304 public schools. Of these, the average rating was 2.05, meaning that Gilbert Stuart, in its appalling, unacceptable condition, is slightly better than average, according to the state’s own rating scale.

One important caveat on the study is that conditions are self reported.  That means the ratings are subject to the  perspectives and biases of the people in each district, as well as their political calculations.  A district that’s pushing for more state and local tax dollars might exaggerate its buildings deficiencies, while a district that’s truly concerned about backlash based on deteriorating schools might downplay the problems.

Be that as it may, RIDE estimates almost $2 billion in expenses to bring all schools up to “good condition.”  In contrast, it foresees a continuing drop in enrollment — by more than 13% in the suburbs, for the 2021-2022 school year (compared with 2011-2012).  That’s on top of an excess capacity already calculated at 19% (meaning that much space is available for more students).  So, that huge expense would be to maintain increasingly empty buildings across the state.

The report makes the obvious recommendation of closing schools and consolidating, which leads to the strategy of regionalization.  Whenever either of the steps of that suggestion come up in reality, however, they become the subject of push-back, both from parents and from labor unions, making them very difficult to execute.  As long as there’s a chance that other people can be made to pay the bulk of the cost, nobody wants to give up their neighborhood school or their job.

The solution (as the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will be laying out over the coming months and years) is a broad program of school choice.  For one thing, empowering families with options changes the politics from a necessity of taking away money and local convenience to a policy of granting opportunity.  For another thing, initial estimates by the Center suggest that school choice would create billions of dollars of flexibility, both in public dollars freed up and in new private dollars invested in tuition.

The question of the near future is going to be whether entrenched interests, including unions, can explode common sense and rational policy for their own benefit.

CORRECTED: Raimondo’s Doomed-to-Fail Progressive Method of Economic Planning

Yesterday, the takeaway about Governor-elect Gina Raimondo’s plan for an economic summit was that most of it would be closed to the news media.  Today, it’s that she has relented and decided to open the doors to the whole thing.  That’s for journalists.  It’s still a closed event in the sense that only invited guests can participate in the sessions, and that’s a problem indicative of the entire strategy of Rhode Island’s ruling class for our shared economy.

The purpose of this summit, per Raimondo’s spokesman, appears to be not to better understand what Rhode Islanders need, but to get some expert feedback on how to supply the things that Raimondo already presumes to know that Rhode Islanders need:

He said the media is invited to the beginning of the meeting because Raimondo wants reporters to hear the “assignment that she’s laying out for the evening.”

Because people have asked, I’ll say that I’m not aware of anybody I know who was invited to participate.  We’re not, apparently, among Raimondo’s understanding of the top 80 “thought leaders” in the state.  (How many articles and TV news segments have to appear about one’s ideas to count as qualification for being a “thought leader” has not been explained.)

As I’ve been saying for years, now, Raimondo is a progressive.  In terms of organizing society, that means that she likely sees society in terms of groups of people, and progressives tend to organize by finding (or appointing) people who are treated as representative of their groups.

The theory is that those representatives bring the concerns of their peers back to the central planner, who weighs all of the feedback according to his or her sense of balance and makes decisions for the good of the whole society.  Two problems with this approach are obvious (at least to anybody who’s watched Rhode Island operate for any length of time:

  1. The individuals selected as the representatives are not perfectly representative of everybody in their group (often barely so), and they have their own interests.  Whether their motivation derives from their particular companies or from their particular factions within their social groups, they are likely to use their platform to shape society’s rules to their advantage.  A businessperson will see things that serve his or her own business model and increase its competitiveness as being critical for that industry as a whole.  A member of a demographic group will tend to use his or her representation of the whole as a way to win internal disagreements.
  2. When the central entity is as domineeringly powerful as the government in Rhode Island, the select few will stop representing their groups to the government, and instead begin representing the government’s insider system to their groups.

In short, it appears that Raimondo intends to formalize as official policy the approach that is destroying her state.  Of course, that assumes that this isn’t all just window dressing around her plans to do whatever she wants to do for political reasons.

Dr. Flanigan to Talk at Portsmouth Institute Saturday

Long-time readers will know that I used to write, every year, from the Portsmouth Institute conference on the grounds of the Portsmouth Abbey school in late June.  It was always one of the highlights of my year, and for some reason, the institute took a hiatus.

Well, it’s back, and extending its activities through the year.  In fact, this Saturday, Dr. Tim Flanigan will be talking about his missionary adventure in Liberia, rebuilding medical infrastructure in Africa.  The talk, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. is titled “Faith and Fear in the Ebola Crisis: Two Months Volunteering in Liberia.”

The event is free and open to the public, but the institute is requesting that people RSVP.

Death by “Let Them Eat Cake”

I bought a basic cell phone for my grandmother, last night.  As the clerk in the Massachusetts store was adding the phone to my family plan, he remarked, “Wow, you pay a lot of taxes!  Oh, you’re in Rhode Island.”

With that anecdote in mind, this morning, I’d suggest that Rhode Islanders should be wary of advice from an economist who admits that (according to Kate Bramson of the Providence Journal) she’s “puzzled” that Rhode Island’s largest sector, education and healthcare, “is failing to enjoy the growth it’s seeing in the region and the country”:

“…  it seems like there’s this party going on in education and health services,” she continued. “And Rhode Island is not at that party, so I’m not sure why that’s not happening in this state.”

Could it have anything to do with Rhode Island’s heavy regulations and taxes, maybe?  Could it have anything to do with the fact that Rhode Island leads the country in health insurance mandates?  Could it have anything to do with Rhode Island’s teachers’ unions being toward the front of the national pack in their power, especially in political activity and the resources going to the union and union members?

Also on the front page of today’s Providence Journal is a Jennifer Bogdan article about Governor-elect Gina Raimondo’s visit to the White House.  Although the visit, alongside other governors, was mainly a photo-op and meet-and-greet, Bogdan writes, “There were also a few moments for cake.”

Raimondo brought the president a slice of Death by Chocolate Cake from Gregg’s restaurant.  Isn’t that just perfect?

While Rhode Island is failing to join the economic party, the woman who will soon be governor is bringing cake to the president and kicking off her big economic strategy:

“My focus all day … my constant question was, ‘What can you do to help get Rhode Island back to work?’ ” Raimondo said. “I’m going to be very aggressive about knocking on doors.”

In other words, her economic strategy is to be a salesperson, not to change the underlying problems.  That won’t work.  The problem isn’t that business people around the country don’t know Rhode Island is here. It’s that they know what Rhode Island is all about.  It’s all about cake for insiders and shackles for people who want to bring their own little circles of the economy in a personalized direction.

Decreasing taxes, regulations, and mandates and allowing broad school choice would bring the economic party to Rhode Island, but anybody hoping that Raimondo is going to go in the direction of freedom over insiderdom is probably going to be disappointed.

Transparency and Planning

I’ve been running into barriers against transparency, lately.

When I requested its correspondence with ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber, HealthSource RI redacted significant paragraphs.  The Town of Tiverton recently spent something like $30,000 on a report about problems in the fire department, and when I asked for a copy, I received one that redacted every word of the interviews the investigator conducted with past and present firefighters about “unfairness, favoritism, bias, hazing, and harassment.”  (I’ve heard the rumors, and it sounds like the problems are at least a contributing factor in an overtime bill that might approach a half-million dollars, this year, possibly involving injuries due to hazing.)

And when I asked the Division of Planning for a breakdown of its payments to outside vendors, I heard back from Peter Dennehy, the Deputy Chief Legal Counsel in the Department of Administration, who runs defense for the administration on public-records requests, and he sent me just the totals:

In response to your request, Kevin Flynn informs me that the total amount of Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant fund expenditures by the recipient/vendor, as set forth in September 30, 2014 federal reporting period, amounted to $1,259,886.88.

For other RhodeMap RI related costs and for the period from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2014,  Kevin Flynn informs me that approximately $359,566 of non-Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant funds have been expended by the Statewide Planning Program.

When I pointed out that my request was for the individual vendor payments, he replied:

I  don’t  believe that we have such a record,  particularly since there are multiple  vendors and subcontractors.

To which, I asked, “Planning doesn’t know to whom they paid money from a federal grant?”  After all, as you can see on RIOpenGov, the state keeps extensive records on vendor payments.  Either the Planning vendors are in there, or the state is hiding something.  I’m told that Flynn may or may not get back to me with further details.

All these barriers that I’ve encountered as I dig more deeply into progressive schemes and public-sector malfeasance may just be a coincidence, but it feels like a cloud is descending.  Some people are hopeful that the incoming Raimondo administration will clear them away.

We’ll see.

Deadly Force and Grand Juries

At the beginning of this year, the Projo‘s Amanda Milkovits compiled a list of “police shootings causing injury or death”, including the formal legal resolutions for the officers involved, going back to 2001. Several of the fatal shootings listed appear to be slam-dunk justified, e.g…

May 2012: Pawtucket officers Emmanuel Mejia and Jess Venturini fatally shoot Jamie Coyle, whose gun jammed as he tried to shoot them. A grand jury says the officers were justified.

July 2008: Providence Officer John Abatiello fatally shoots Eddy Tiburcio, who was stabbing a woman with a bayonet. A grand jury clears Abatiello.

…but nevertheless went into the grand-jury process.

In these cases, it seems at least possible and maybe probable that, had the shooters not been police officers, cases might not have been brought to a grand jury at all, e.g. if a non-police officer saw a friend or family member being attacked with a bayonet, and he shot and killed the bayonet-wielding attacker, would a prosecutor be expected to seek an indictment of the non-police officer who had used deadly force?

An important question I believe this raises is, in Rhode Island and elsewhere, by either law or custom (and I realize the answer will vary by jurisdiction), do all police uses of force resulting in the death or serious injury go to a grand-jury for a review? It is important to sort this detail out, because there may be some counter-intuitive consequences to prosecutors applying different standards to police versus non-police cases — even if, on the surface, it appears that the police officers are held to tougher standards — that cause the grand-jury system to not work so well in the police cases.

Is RI’s Ruling Class Capable of Learning the Lesson?

A story from yesterday and a story from today, both in the Providence Journal, raise the question of whether the people who operate Rhode Island’s government are capable of learning the lesson of our state’s predicament.  (That they apparently haven’t learned it yet comes pretty close to answering the question.)

Let’s start with Randal Edgar’s story today:

Taking stances that could complicate the challenges facing lawmakers and Governor-elect Gina Raimondo, the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the Department of Human Services and the Judiciary are among the departments and agencies that say they can’t cut their way to a balanced budget.

Instead, they are seeking more money, or suggesting that some of their costs be assigned elsewhere.

The recurring theme is that the departments say they can’t make the necessary budget reductions without cutting into their staffing or programs, to which I say, “Well, yeah.”  They’re going to have to cut.  Government can’t be the one sector, in Rhode Island, that’s recession proof (or even societal-decline proof).  Agencies are going to have to do less with fewer people.  Sorry.

HealthSource RI is an excellent example of the problem.  Reading Edgar’s article, it’s clear that implementing the ObamaCare health benefits exchange and the related expansion of Medicaid were terrible decisions.  Like somebody addicted to gambling or credit cards, Rhode Island government has long been counting on a recovery that’s never going to come.

The good news is that the department heads’ complaint that cuts would be draconian are blowing smoke.  Look to the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Spotlight on Spending report for tips on how a few tens of millions of dollars could be found easily.

For another example of why the cuts must be made, turn to Paul Edward Parker’s article about T.F. Green Airport, yesterday.  Be sure to read to the end:

At the end of the day, though, there’s only so much [Rhode Island Airport Corporation President Kelly Fredericks] can do to boost passenger levels at Green. He needs sharp marketing, and plans to extend the main runway will help. But two more significant factors will remain beyond his control:

How will Rhode Island’s economy fare?

Will airlines change strategy to put more emphasis on secondary airports?

This isn’t complicated.  If more people are doing business year round in Rhode Island, airlines will have incentive to increase direct flights, including from distant locations.

Every one of these stories related to the local economy in recent years has the same moral:  Government must loosen its tax and regulatory grip on the Rhode Island economy so that we, Rhode Islanders, can find the best ways to put our talents and resources to use.  When we’re thriving, the government can start to think about expanding again, but until that point, it ought to be in a hurry to get out of our way.