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.

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