Monday’s Community Outreach Forum on Policing, Part 1

On Monday evening, the South Providence Recreation Center assembled a community outreach forum where Colonel Hugh Clements, Chief of the Providence Police Department, and Colonel Steven O’Donnell, Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, were invited to interact with members of the general public in an open dialog. Here are a few of my takeaways from the forum:

1. The best social science analysis of the evening came not from the audience member who described police as “just a manifestation of racism” and “evolved slave masters”, nor from the audience member who made the postmodernist’s all-purpose reference to “power disparity”, but from an audience member named Thomas who offered these thoughts…

Thomas: I think that once of the biggest checks on any type of questionable activity by the police department is when police officers have ties to the community. What I mean by that is…if you’re working on a department where 95% of the department have grandmothers, aunts, uncles so on and so-forth in the community, when you make a stop, that’s going to check you to make sure you’re professional, because you know if you do anything questionable, when you get back to the station, you are going to have to answer to your fellow police officer, who do did something to his nephew, his cousin…When you work in a police department where 95% of the people have no ties to the community, there’s no check, there’s no balance.

In other words, the most effective police departments are drawn from and built upon communities that are already strong and settled.

The  gap described by Thomas is more likely to exist where strong community networks are absent, where people feel alienated from the institutions of society and from one another. However, in the reasonable theory of policing expressed by Chief Clements at the start of the evening, good policing is a necessary precursor to building a community…

Providence Chief of Police Hugh Clements: It’s about improving the quality of life in the city…we preach, in every neighborhood in this city, it’s about housing, education and health, in that respective community, for it to be a vibrant and successful community. And none of that can occur, without public safety in that community. We know that, the people enjoy a good relationship with the police, but the police cannot do it alone, and the police need to enjoy a better relationship with the people in the community.

Obviously, if good policing is built on robust communities, while the pathway to robust communities is cleared by good policing, there is a real chicken-or-egg issue with finding solutions. There is no easy answer to this.  South Providence Recreation Center Director Cedric Huntley may have summarized it best, in his emphatic challenge to the entire audience, telling everyone in attendance that the only way to make a positive difference on an issue like this is to work on it “every single day, not when it’s a hot topic”.

2. If closing the gap described above is the long-term challenge, is there anything fixable or manageable in the immediate term? In this vein, I was struck by a comment made by Chief Clements, which came as a surprise at least to me, on how a Federal “consent decree” impacts citizen complaints…

HC: As far as…routinely hearing the same [officers’] names involved in situations, there is a process. There really is. We all live within the same process of hearings. We are under a consent decree from the Federal Court, and we’re trying to change that. We’ve sat for the last year and a half, and we’re very close to changing the process as to the way we investigate and have hearings in the community. Myself and the Commander have talked about it with the Commissioner. Some portions of that consent decree are outdated and, in fact, the community member who makes the complaint doesn’t really get a fair hearing. So we’re trying to change the consent decree and how we investigate and have hearings on officers that somebody has a dispute with….

I asked Colonel Clements about the consent decree, it dates back to the 1970s.

This is symptomatic of a general problem with police accountability, and indeed governmental accountability (and not just in the City of Providence). Police accountability has been fractured into a patchwork of consent decrees, grand jury and prosecutorial processes, collective bargaining restrictions, and procedures and hearing panels required by the statutory-level “law enforcement officers bill of rights” – with some of these measures specifically intended to take serious disciplinary and even basic command authority away from the traditional chain-of-command. Multiple audience members over the course of Monday’s forum called for a civilian oversight board for dealing with complaints against the police, but I am skeptical that adding another branch into the existing tangle would significantly repair the already confused pathway of accountability.

A first step to restored accountability is a streamlining of what exists now, so that the command staff of a police department can enact a reasonable range of discipline. In addition, a basic concept that our government and society seems to be losing needs restoration, that concept being that the leader of a police force — not just ceremonially but in a true operational sense — is the top elected official of the city, town or state that the police force serves. Final authority in a police force residing unambiguously in an elected official with responsibility for balancing all aspects of police department performance is ultimately the only type of accountability that will work in the long run.

More to come…

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