Relentless Benefit of the Doubt for the Cicillines


While unloading fishing boats in Galilee, conversation is the primary means of keeping each other entertained, and the subject matter is typically what one would expect.  A while back, for example, after somebody’s acquaintance had his life pretty well mangled by a DUI, one of the older guys on my shift lamented the loss of a day when police saw their role in such situations as getting people home safely, not punishing them for dumb mistakes.

Given general agreement with my elder’s opinion on this matter, I’ll stipulate that the Warwick police’s handling of Narragansett Town Council President Susan Cicilline-Buonanno was probably how these things ought to go, when she was pulled over under suspicion of impaired driving while the officer was being filmed for reality TV.  Yes, she admitted that she had been drinking and denied that she was on any form of medication.  Yes, she had a bizarre amount of trouble with instructions to follow the officer’s finger with her eyes and difficulty walking a straight line.  Yes, the host of the show noted that many viewers would be surprised that the officer let her go with the promise that she would get a ride, but still…

The question is what we want the role of the police to be.  My preference is for public safety officers to do their best to keep us all safe as we go about our lives, not to enforce a standard for how we live.  The objective ought to be to get people home safely.  Yet, fairly or unfairly, online reactions to the video prove that most people don’t expect the law to operate on that principle, and it seems that only some people receive the benefit of the doubt.

This extra margin for personal error applies not just to the police, in this case.  The story appeared on Friday night, and Cicilline-Buonanno survived the whole weekend with only the GoLocal article linked above.  The Providence Journal waited for a statement from the councilwoman and didn’t include the video, even online.  Thus, we’re already into what would normally be the second wave of a story, as Donita Naylor couches her reportage in terms of the reaction to the incident and the print edition headline glosses the story with minimizing language: “‘Live PD’ segment stirs brouhaha.”

The only other coverage so far appears to be WJAR’s quick blurb about the Projo article.  Nobody appears to have asked Cicilline-Buonanno’s congressman brother, David Cicilline, for comment, and the Projo also featured prominently on the page a podcast in which Cicilline touts his political power.

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Again, maybe this is how it ought to be.  Maybe it was also reasonable that nobody (to my knowledge) pressed the Cicilline siblings for comment when their father appeared in Tim White’s excellent book about the Rhode Island mob, The Last Good Heist.  Somehow, though, this treatment doesn’t seem ordinary.  In a state that makes big news out of a former state rep’s deception about his residence and whose media spotlights the appearance of any local who catches the national eye, one might expect an unfortunate performance for the cameras like Cicilline-Buonanno’s to compete for some front-page Sunday space.  This weekend, the Projo front-paged a hyper-local story about a truck repair business and two new advocacy stories for legalized marijuana, instead.

However the police should have handled the matter, this isn’t some minor complaint.  If a privileged few have their public images polished with benefit of the doubt while others have theirs tarnished by relentless suspicion, that changes the public’s sense of their community and will affect how we all vote.

  • Monique Chartier

    Yes, the unfortunate silence (largely) of the RI media, other than WPRO, is disturbing.

    The big issue here, and the key as to whether she got special treatment is: how often under these specific circumstances does the officer allow the person s/he pulled over to call family to come and get him/her? Does it happen all the time? Or is it an option reserved only for the politician?

    • ri401

      I saw this question a lot and thought I’d share. A friend of mine coming home from a bar, late, got pulled over for a broken tail light. He admitted to drinking and the Warwick officer let his son come and bring him home. He only lived about 1 minute away so it does happen. I told him he was very lucky!
      I just so happen to watch the PVLive by accident and the whole time wondered why aren’t we seeing her face? She was pretty ridiculous not being able to complete anything he asked her to do. The whole thing was just bizarre.

  • ShannonEntropy

    I am shocked, shocked! to learn that here in Li’l Rhody the “I know a guy” tactic works even better when that ‘guy’ is your brother AND a congressman

    • Rhett Hardwick

      I am wondering if the “reality TV” had as much to do with things as a family connection.

      • ShannonEntropy

        C’mon, Rhett !!

        If you watch the tape the gal is obviously impaired. Anyone else would have ended up in handcuffs & blowing up a balloon

        If they’re just gonna let drunk drivers walk, why the heck are the Staties wasting tens of thousands of our bucks on ads about drunk driving ??

        • Justin Katz

          Why, indeed. Your closing question might be the key.

          • ShannonEntropy

            Off topic, Justin… but a while back — in the Pro-Jo if memory serves — you or Mike recommended we vote in the Democratic Primary in Sept.

            [[ I know that you did this at least once, and yes, your voting records are public info here in The Biggest Little… that’s how I know your birthday is in May ]]

            But anywho… are you gonna tell us exactly who to vote for ??. I normally vote in the Republican primary and then immediately disaffiliate so I can go either way next month

            p.s. my former Pawtuxet Village neighbor and councilwoman for Warwick’s Ward 1 Sue Stenhouse is the only Republican running for mayor here, so that won’t be an issue. She moved to Gaspee a few yrs ago and I haven’t seen her since the Great Cross-dressing National Scandal


          • Justin Katz

            Sorry for the slow response. These are difficult recommendations to make across the whole state, involving a lot of judgment calls. If your district only has a Democrat primary, for example, vote for the more conservative candidate. If the winner of the Democrat primary will face a strong Republican candidate in the general election, the cause of conservatism might be better served by voting for the less strong Democrat. (This assumes the Republican is the most conservative candidate.)

            Beyond this general advice, the Gaspee Project has put together a limited guide on specific races.

        • Rhett Hardwick

          Honestly, I haven’t taken the trouble to watch the video.