Providence’s Gangland Security Act


If this is actually the text of the Community Safety Act currently marching its way into law in Providence, voters in the city should devote some thought to how they could possibly have elected enough officials to push through something so insane.

In such wide-ranging legislation, not all the provisions are terrible, of course.  Body cameras on police are generally a good idea, and some of the specifics about stating the reasons for pulling somebody over and guiding whose IDs police can check serve our civil liberties.  Unfortunately, these sorts of reforms are packaged with ideological rot.

Anti-discrimination and anti-profiling provisions are corrosive, allowing the politicization of law enforcement.  A broad provision not to work with federal agencies seems reckless, as opposed to a narrowly targeted decision not to participate in particular activities (which might be bad policy, but which would at least be limited in scope).  Overall, as a government ties its strings to law enforcement, it pushes the actual conduct and purpose of their job into second place, as the top priority becomes navigating regulations.  (A better idea would be simply to make fewer things illegal, and thus create less opportunity for abuse.)

But the provisions dealing with gangs are sheer lunacy.  Basically, “any list or database maintained by any law enforcement agency, nor in any written notes, reports, memoranda or other document” for the purpose of tracking or organizing inquiries related to gang members has to have a statement of the criteria for inclusion, with these absurd restrictions on what criteria can be used:

  1. Association with other people identified as gang members or any substantially equivalent factor;
  2. Race;
  3. Location of domicile; nor
  4. Location of encounter.

So for a race-based gang that controls a particular neighborhood, police are forbidden even to create “written notes” of suspected members based on those very qualities.  Moreover, the law would make it impossible for police to have written documents tracing the expansion of a gangs into other ethnic groups or other neighborhoods.

To the extent that police are still able to put lists together, gang members can ask whether they’re on them (and the parents of minors must actively be notified of their children’s inclusion).  Thus, gangs can always be one step ahead of the police by figuring out police methods and tracing their progress.  Got sensitive business to conduct?  Give it to the gang members you know aren’t on the list.

Don’t worry, by the way, that gangs might hesitate to use this method.  The act forbids police from looking for patterns in the inquiries about gang list inclusion.

Again, this act is so broad that even individual officers would find it nearly impossible to have make handwritten notes for the purpose of organizing their ideas or brainstorming with other officers in order to get a sense of the gangs in the city, even in a mostly informal way.  The act could have, for example, required stricter limits for an official list that is a required step for some heightened action (say surveillance or prosecution), with broader latitude for internal use only, but this covers everything.

Assuming that this wasn’t the product of gang lobbyists who want gangs to thrive in Providence, the “Community Safety Act” seems designed to make it impossible for society to determine and identify underlying causes for things like racial disparities in arrests.  Perhaps it’s more comfortable to handcuff police than to wonder whether it’s the breakdown of families caused by the welfare state and the use of public schools to radicalize, rather than educate, students, that’s creating the problem.

  • BasicCaruso

    “So for a race-based gang that controls a particular neighborhood, police are forbidden even to create ‘written notes’ of suspected members based on those very qualities.”

    Being black or latino in one’s own neighborhood is suspicion enough, huh? My guess is you’d feel quite a bit differently if it were your child listed as a presumed gang member because of his race and street address.

    • Justin Katz

      I’ll put aside my policy of not responding to your bad-faith arguments for this one.

      The act would forbid police from using racial or location-based factors as criteria in any list — including rough notes they might keep internally just to help them organize their thoughts. Your bad faith comes most notably in twisting it to be “suspicion enough.” The act doesn’t say “solely on these factors,” but that they cannot be used at all.

      So, say you’re a cop trying to get your head around the Swedish gang that controls the Main Street area. In trying to map out the gang for public safety reasons, you don’t put Seamus inside the circle on your notepad in which you’re listing suspected members of the gang for a variety of reasons, but among those reasons is that he’s Irish and lives on the North End.

      Now consider that you observe that Seamus and Aiden are exhibiting some of the same behavior that put them in your mind related to this gang. That might give you an indication that the Swedish gang is expanding to include Irish kids from the North End.

      Again, this is your notepad brainstorming, so it doesn’t trigger any particular action, but it might give you leads on how to get ahead of the gang as it develops its illegal activities.

      If the gangs are organizing themselves by race and/or neighborhood, activists are hobbling police if they forbid them to acknowledge that reality. Your kind of blinders-on progressivism harms nobody so much as the people trapped in gang-ridden areas.

      • BasicCaruso

        I attended quite a few community meetings in Providence and never once heard anyone ask for more racial profiling. At some level this is about respecting the people who live in these communities and about the presumption of innocence in our legal system.

        Image what this is like for the people involved. Would it be acceptable if lets say a profile was developed for militia members likely to pose a threat… white and from rural areas. Now imagine that everyone fitting that profile was placed on a secret government list. Should police be allowed to then use that list to justify stopping those individuals, monitoring their actions, developing lists of associations with other “known” potential militia members? Should children be included on the list without notifying their parents?

        Call it “bad faith” if you like, but it’s a scary scenario for civil libertarians and not just those who are progressives. First they came for the gang “members?”

        • Justin Katz

          You keep arguing intention. I’m arguing the particulars of the act, which goes much, much farther than disallowing the police from developing lists based on a single criterion that allows them to monitor specific individuals.
          I’m genuinely curious: Did you even read my response? I don’t see how you could have and responded thus.

          • BasicCaruso

            I read it, but I’ll admit your writing often leaves me wondering what you mean, for instance I have no idea what “arguing intention” is… The police don’t “intend” to racially profile minorities so we should trust them that’s not what they’re doing? Now who’s not acknowledging reality?

          • Justin Katz

            Oy. You’re arguing the intention of the ACT. I’m arguing the particulars and the effect that it would have.

          • BasicCaruso

            Uh, OK. I think you’re missing the point. Whatever else you might say about “effectiveness”, it’s not a justification for violating the individual liberty of the people caught up in that type of racial profiling.

            It’s easy enough to be for this type of authoritarian police practice so long as it’s in someone else’s neighborhood.

      • BasicCaruso

        Let me comment on this one…
        “Your kind of blinders-on progressivism harms nobody so much as the people trapped in gang-ridden areas.”

        It’s quite a statement to say you know better than the people who live in Providence what’s good for them. The CSA has broad support in the community, where people have worked for years to get it to this point.

        What you ignore is that this type of activity (profiling based on race or where someone lives) is quite harmful to community/police relations… we’ll give you what you deserve, not what you ask for. The community is not anti-police, but what I heard in meetings were calls for increased foot or bike patrols, officers on the streets who know the people and have no need for the brute force techniques that would be barred by the act.

        Saying people are “trapped” in Providence just tells me you have no idea what it’s like living there. It’s a wonderful and vibrant community, one that people want to make better. CSA would be a start.