Civil Rights

Activists urge civilian oversight board to aid in defunding efforts

“When we’re talking about what it means to change policing in Providence … we need to start turning this conversation around from ‘how do we make the police better’ and start divesting funds from a failed system—and frankly I only say failed because it’s hurting us, but this is what the system was designed to do…” Last week, the Providence
Photo for Activists urge civilian oversight board to aid in defunding efforts

Published on June 21, 2020
By Michael Blackmon

When we’re talking about what it means to change policing in Providence … we need to start turning this conversation around from ‘how do we make the police better’ and start divesting funds from a failed system—and frankly I only say failed because it’s hurting us, but this is what the system was designed to do…”

Last week, the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) sent a letter to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and the Providence City Council “recommending the city reallocate funding from the Providence Police Department and reinvest the funds into PERA, in order to transition to a new, civilian lead model of oversight.” Journalist Julia Rock took this recommendation seriously in a thoughtful article that followed the statement’s release, noting that PERA’s letter “was one of the first concrete asks pertaining to defunding the police that has come from a city official.” There seemed to be a sense of qualified optimism about PERA’s statement among community members who want to see structural changes to the way Providence handles public safety. Amid thousands of emails sent to the City Council and countless protestors every week calling for the defunding of the Providence Police Department (PPD), here was one specific measure to divest funds from police.

The virtual monthly PERA meeting that followed these actions, however, made it clear that there is still a sharp divide between the new measures being called for in the Providence streets and the actions PERA, as an organization, is willing to take. Both the discussion between PERA board members and their immediate plan for addressing the city’s policing show a commitment to increasing PERA’s abilities to oversee and reform police conduct. Meanwhile, the activists who spoke in the latter half of the meeting called for PERA to use all the powers it already has at its disposal, as well as fight for some new ones, in order to assist the community with the eventual elimination of the police.

Here’s the video of the meeting:

PERA’s Goals: Police Oversight and Police Reform

Before the meeting on June 17th even began, Julia Rock asked Jose F. Batista—the executive director of PERA—about PERA’s role in this unique political moment. He responded, “part of my thinking as the PERA executive director, and also as a human being and a man of color who is trying to think about what my place is in society, is to try to keep the PERA work focused on what it is supposed to be focused on: civilian oversight.”

The comments and proposals Batista made during the meeting reflect this focus on oversight, as well as an interest in eventually reforming specific police practices, after PERA is given more funds. At the beginning of the meeting, he posed a hypothetical question: “how do we talk about police reform in a way that does not sound ‘anti-police’ … That’s been something that we’ve been trying to prove. It’s possible to look at policies, to look at practices, to look at results, in an independent, objective way that produces better public policy, and that’s really been the goal of PERA.”

Then the executive director began his presentation on PERA’s biannual report in which he unveiled nine new recommendations that will be submitted to the City Council. The first five points call for the “official, independent, and civilian review” (emphasis their own) of the following elements of the PPD:

  1. Use of Force procedures;
  2. Violent Crimes Task Force;
  3. Military Equipment;
  4. Training academy lectures and materials rubric;
  5. Disciplinary Matrix.

The wording of the first few points suggests that after each of these independent reviews, PERA can choose to identify specific areas in which PPD practices should change. The board can then submit their findings and recommendations to the Providence City Council.

Point six on the list calls for a policy that would require Providence Police’s Internal Affairs Bureau to share every single misconduct complaint they receive with PERA. This added transparency would more easily allow PERA to oversee police conduct. Point seven asks the council to send a letter to Governor Gina Raimondo, Speaker of the House Nicholas Matiello, and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio Ruggiero that calls for the reform of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBOR). While there are many vocal proponents of repealing LEOBOR altogether, PERA is in favor of changing specific aspects of it. Point eight requests the codification of a “Duty to Intervene” ordinance. This is the only new policy the board is currently pushing to make a PPD ordinance.

The last point of PERA’s plan calls for three amendments to the Providence Community Police Relations Act (PCPRA):

  1. the reinstatement of the act’s original name (Community Safety Act);
  2. the equipment of PERA “with the investigative tools … it needs to properly conduct independent civilian oversight … such as autonomous subpoena ability;” and
  3. the codification of a requirement that PERA’s annual budget be no less than 2% of the PPD budget.

As it stands, PERA’s budget is only 0.5% of PPD’s. Batista said during the meeting that the added funds would go towards increasing personnel, outreach efforts, researching and investigative powers, and technology. So, like the rest of the nine-point plan, amendments 2 and 3 strengthen PERA’s capacity to both investigate (oversee) and subsequently suggest action on their findings (reform) as they deem necessary.

Other issues the board then discussed cemented its current position as a body interested in reform. Member Mike Fontaine recommended in-service officer training be added to point four of PERA’s list. Vice-Chair Machiste Rankin then pointed out that point eight’s “Duty to Intervene” policy would be useless without a guarantee that body cameras are filming all police interactions with civilians. The board then discussed all of the problems that come along with body cameras—that they can be turned off, that body camera policies are difficult to enforce, and the excuses police departments give as to why they cannot have cameras constantly rolling. They then resolved to ensure that at the very least, current body camera policies be enforced and that violating officers suffer actual ‘progressive disciplinary actions.’ These discussions show a clear interest in the ways PERA can hold police accountable based on existing policies, or else an interest in reforming policies in such a way that leaves existing PPD funds, and thus, the fundamental presence and function of police in Providence, effectively unscathed.

Community Response: Squaring PERA with the Moment

After the board finished up its discussion of the biannual report, the meeting was opened up to community members who had thoughts on anything from the specifics of the nine-point plan to how policing in the country should be addressed more broadly. 

The first speaker was artist and activist Vatic Kuumba. He first thanked the board for giving the community a space to talk about policing in their city. Then he expressed a need for Providence to invest in alternative systems of community wellness that are better-suited to protect the community than the violent police.

“As an artist I do look at symbols … and so I look at the emblem of the Providence Police force. It’s a hand holding a sword. And in this moment, we don’t need swords, we don’t need 400 plus swords going around in our community to make us safer … I think about the tools that we have for our officers, and the tools that are on their belt or in their car, y’know, and those tools are structured around violence. And I think that we need to push ourselves to imagine … a force that could be for actual public safety and for public healing.”

Vatic then told the board about a meeting he had recently attended with Councilwoman Rachel Miller in which around 80 community members collaboratively distributed the city’s funds. He informed everyone that similar meetings were going to take place throughout the city and invited members of PERA to participate in them, as well as speak to the community about the work that PERA does.

Justice Gaines, the Justice Coordinator for Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) and a board member of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), spoke next. Xe both reiterated the need for the city of Providence to divest funds from the PPD and listed specific ways in which PERA could support that movement.

“When we’re talking about what it means to change policing in Providence … we need to start turning this conversation around from ‘how do we make the police better’ and start divesting funds from a failed system—and frankly I only say failed because it’s hurting us, but this is what the system was designed to do … The reason we’re no longer talking about what would make the police better … is because we know that those new trainings didn’t stop people like Terrell Paci from getting racially profiled in Providence. We know that the body cams are a flawed system. We can’t have them reporting everything all the time … and frankly … I’m tired of watching my people die on camera. A body camera did not save the life of George Floyd, cameras did not save the life of Alton Sterling, cameras did not save the life of Philando Castille, cameras did not save the life of Sandra Bland. Cameras capturing the violence against us do not save our lives.”

Justice called for something besides the conventional reform measures employed to combat police brutality—namely body cameras, increased training, more rules, and greater accountability. Xe took this a step further, saying that “reallocating funds towards PERA is still reallocating funds back into an investment into this policing system.”

This sentiment might sound contradictory or extreme, but has actually been echoed by leading police and prison abolitionists across the country. Mariame Kaba, along with Beth Richie, Dylan Rodríguez, Melissa Burch, Rachel Herzing and Shana Agid described the same phenomenon as Justice when talking about the limitations of civilian review boards in general. They write, “building trust in the institution of policing tends to legitimize the role police play in our daily lives. If we invest in an oversight body that is meant to work toward the goal of ending ‘bad’ policing, we simultaneously invest in the resources, rhetoric, and power of policing and the possibility of police reform. This legitimizes the things police departments do as a regular part of the work of policing, including using force to do everything from settle disputes between people to suppress dissent. Increasing the legitimacy of policing entrenches and enhances police power … This runs counter to abolitionist goals to make policing obsolete by meeting the needs and desires for community and individual well-being that, in theory, fall to policing, but in fact are mostly left unmet, anyway.”

Justice ended xyr speech by outlining specific ways in which PERA could do more and take steps toward an abolitionist future. Xe called for the repeal—not the reform—of LEOBOR. Gaines also pointed out the fact that PERA is allowed to both review police contracts and call public hearings on police policies, urging them to take full advantage of their existing powers. Lastly, Justice called for PERA to have the same powers as the current Internal Affairs Bureau, not only in a hypothetical ability to subpoena (as PERA requested in point nine of their plan), but in the ability of PERA to enact punitive measures against officers who commit misconduct. I believe this would have to involve a push to change PERA’s ordinance. Currently, Sec. 18½-2. of Providence’s Code of Ordinances has it so that PERA can only make recommendations to the City Council. This includes PERA’s findings in any and all evidentiary hearings. Justice was asking PERA to fight for an expansion of its power—for the gaining of real teeth—so that its independent investigations won’t be reliant on the conscience of the City Council.

Vanessa Flores-Maldonado—the co-director of PrYSM—also spoke to the board. She reiterated Justice’s views on body cameras and policing more generally, saying, “the community never even asked for body cams, that was never a demand that we had, we didn’t care about body cams because we knew that even if we had body cams they would ‘mysteriously’ turn off … body cams are not gonna save us. What is gonna save us is abolishing the police. We have to recognize that defunding the police is about abolishing the police at the end of the day. Our youth have this energy and this drive and this passion we cannot ignore, and so I’m not gonna tell them ‘no, we have to reform first’ … It’s not just reform anymore, it’s abolish. That’s the movement that the youth are about right now. And you know what, we need to get behind that or get out of their way, because they’re really, they’re doing it … trainings are not going to be enough, ever. Change of policy, reform, none of that is going to change what is true, which is that policing in America was not meant for people of color, for black folks, especially. We’ve seen this nonstop.”

Vanessa then said that, “right now, I’m just asking for there to be an elimination of jobs in the police department.” She later specifically called for the elimination of SRO’s from Providence schools in her statement. She then clarified that she did not want those SRO’s to simply be added back into the pool Providence Police officers. “I don’t want eight more officers in the streets, I want eight more officers off the force.”

City Councilmember Rachel Miller and founder of Providence Cultural Equity Initiative Ray Watson also made brief statements. Miller announced her full support of increasing the investigative powers of PERA. Watson suggested other elements of the PPD that could be reviewed by PERA.

Shannah Kurland, an attorney who has also been central to PrYSM’s efforts, joined the meeting and expressed frustration with the general approach she understood PERA to be taking. 

“What I’m hearing is … an approach that’s sort of geared towards PERA shadowing the police department. Justice described it really aptly, this idea that, you know, that PERA is really so integrated now that it becomes a part of this policing monster that is destroying and ravaging our community.” Again, this not only echoes Justice’s observation, but indictments made by other abolitionists throughout the country.

Kurland then specifically called for PERA to increase its outreach measures. She also cautioned them that their demand for the Internal Affairs Bureau to share all formal misconduct reports would not allow PERA to know about the complainants who were persuaded by the police not to take further action. 

The last speaker of the evening was Tal Frieden. Tal once again reiterated Justice’s and Vanessa’s call for the full defunding of the police. Then Tal brought up the fact that, “as I understand it, PERA has the ability to make budget recommendations to the City Council regarding the police budget.” Part VII Section 2 of the PERA Bylaws confirms this claim. The section reads, “The January 31 bi-annual report shall, pursuant to PCPRA section (i)(5) include any recommendations to the Mayor and City Council regarding the recommended diverting of funds from the Providence Police Department budget to youth development activities.”

“Youth development activities” is vague—perhaps intentionally so; the phrase could conceivably apply to almost any community safety/wellness program. So Tal was yet another person in the meeting who called for PERA to use all of the tools the PCPRA has already given it, specifically so that its board can urge the City Council to support further defunding of the PPD.

Lastly, Tal asked members of PERA to look at CAHOOTS in Oregon, the recent decision in Las Angeles to eliminate most police response to 911 calls, and the Minneapolis City Council’s decision to disband their city’s police as evidence that first steps towards fully defunding the police are now politically possible in the United States.

What Comes Next

It is too soon to know whether or not any of the community members’ demands will be incorporated into PERA’s immediate recommendations or long term strategic plan. If members of PERA have been swayed, it will definitely take a swift restructuring of PERA’s priorities in order for any bolder demands about this year’s budget to be made. The deadline is June 30th. But as both board members and other meeting participants acknowledged, these are extraordinary times. The public is heavily scrutinizing how their tax dollars are being spent. City and state governments are scrambling to pacify dedicated protestors. Minds are being changed by the minute as people allow themselves to imagine alternatives to institutions that once felt timeless. All of the work generations of abolitionists have done is now being offered up to the rest of the world on a silver platter. For the first time, demands to defund the police are being heard over the noise of more conventional reform efforts. If there was ever an environment in which a relatively new civilian oversight board were to expand its power to help facilitate not just the “transition to a new, civilian lead model of oversight,” but a transition to a new, civilian lead model of community investment and community safety, it is the one we’re in now.

Both Vatic and Vanessa acknowledged that the complete defunding of the PPD is not going to happen in one fiscal year. Even if calls to begin defunding continue to be dismissed by most Providence officials in the coming days, the defund movement can continue to grow and activists old and new can apply just as much if not more pressure on groups like PERA—groups full of well-meaning, well-versed members that also have identifiable ways of expanding their influence over Providence’s government. Vanessa, Justice, and Shannah are already extremely well acquainted with who PERA is and what PERA does. Since the official implementation of the PCPRA—which the three were also instrumental in constructing and getting passed—Vanessa, Justice, and Shannah have been staples of these monthly PERA meetings. So have other members of both PrYSM and DARE. Vanessa said of the PCPRA, or CSA, as it still is commonly known, “the CSA was powerful … three years ago when we passed it. Right now, we’re moving beyond the CSA, we’re evolving beyond that … we need to see an elimination of this budget … so I’m gonna urge y’all to fight harder. Be meaner. Y’all see how mean and rude I can get. You’ve experienced it. So now just embrace your inner Vanessa and let her out.”

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