The following is a letter in response to the Providence Fraternal Order of Police. It is written by Providence residents who have witnessed, through real life experience, political and direct service work we do in our community, and through mass media, the effects of police brutality, mass incarceration, and the criminal justice system’s permanent entrenchment in white supremacy.
In recent articles, the Providence Fraternal Order of Police labeled Kat Kerwin, a city councilmember in Providence, an “extremist” for her support of defunding and abolishing the police and Mayor Jorge Elorza, “inflamatory” for speaking out on social media against the murder of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police and against the misconduct of police nationwide. We understand their perspectives given the uptick in homicides across the city of Providence in the past few weeks. They want to see further coverage of these events by prominent political figures rather than broader critiques of America’s policing and criminal justice systems as a whole.
But the Providence FOP leave so many details out of their skewed narratives (like the fact that Mayor Elorza just held a press conference addressing these homicides last week), in order to protect their jobs and disregard the oppressive imperatives at the core of carceral systems in our nation. (Our criminal justice system is not a broken system, but rather a system that functions exactly as intended from it’s roots in slave catching and creation of new manifestations of slavery throughout time – a criminal (in)justice system rather.) Their commitment to perpetuating inequitable social and institutional structures, and the brutality of such a system, is frankly a disturbing disregard for the wellness of people of color, across the United States and here in Providence.
We do not agree with their framing of these events and we feel it is time to reclaim the narrative and point to the truth of these matters. We have seen over and over again how police do not prevent murders, and often fail to serve justice in their wake, and we will not buy into the narrative that their main role is to do anything but protect property.
We firstly want to state, that Providence, like many other cities, has always had a homicide problem, but the rates of instances of homicides this year, even condensed as they have been to a few weeks, are still in line with the patterns of the past few years. (See: here, here and here.) We won’t accept the “police are essential narrative” around homicides, because police almost never prevent them, but rather show up too late, and fail to investigate the matter well, because many folks living in the communities where these events take place, those who police try to use as witnesses, are afraid to speak to police forces who have already caused so much distress in their neighborhoods. (Dan McGowan Interview, WPRI News 2014) Of the last six homicides in Providence this summer, no arrests or charges of suspects have been made. A recent New York Times study of three major United States cities showed that police only spend, on average, 4% of their time at the active scene of a violent crime each year.
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To use the words of a prominent figure with much time spent working within the very system of United States policing, retired New York City Police Commissioner Robert J McGuire, in the late 1970’s, “Murders…seemed to have a life of their own, and to be relatively immune from police intervention. How can we expect these communities to put their trust in, and help police to find suspects, when the police are precisely who to blame for so much displacement and disenfranchisement in and of these very communities?
We must look at homicides as less of a moral dilemma, and more so as a fact of life in a society that lacks resources for those born into vulnerable positionalities, and disproportionately disadvantages specific peoples across racial and class lines more so than others. It is simply a matter of who has the ability to legalize murder. We are by no means advocating for violence, but instead simply urging our local audience to think more critically about it’s perpetuation. When the United States fights wars across seas, based on the supposed narrative of “promoting world peace,” our military is commended for the murder of innocent foreign civilians, yet when gangs assert territoriality in our communities through murder, it is mandated illegal and often framed as “black on black crime.” The truth of history tells us that the main motivations behind United States imperialist intervention have been largely economic and self-serving, rather than a promotion of peace. And when we look closer at the truth of the history of gang relations in our country, a more informed perspective can help us see the economic struggle imposed upon communities of color nationwide that has necessitated the existence of gangs, and created a landscape of gang violence that many are caught up in from a young age out of the need to simply survive. Gangs originated out of resistance to white vigilante and police violence, with the intention to serve one’s own community. They have become what they currently are because of our country’s long standing landscapes of inequity. If our local governments did a better job of investing in services that could begin to level the economic playing field, initiatives such as housing affordability, occupational opportunity, comprehensive mental health and drug abuse care, etc ‒ we would likely see less instances of violence in the lower income, often Black and Brown communities of Providence, and in our state as a whole. This is especially true in this moment, when something often left out of the Providence police’s narrative surrounding murders and the folks who commit them, is the fact that fentanyl use is at an all time high in Rhode Island, because of its profitability and addictiveness. (Convo with PPD Detective Steele). Each social service we need greater, more equitable access to, is intertwined with others, and a comprehensive social safety net with sufficient funding for all of these services to exist, would likely do a better job of preventing violence than any police force ever could.
When it comes to dealing with the aftermath of a shooting incident, we as a community need professional crisis managers with backgrounds in shock therapy and emotion management. The majority of work that is to be done after dealing with a homicide involves calming down the involved members, and collecting information about what has occurred. An example of an organization already stepping up to do this work, is The Non-Violence Institute of Rhode Island and their StreetWorker Outreach Team, which employs folks more specially trained in such techniques than local police are, to respond to and understand the dynamics of instances of violence in Providence and Pawtucket. These types of services are what we should turn to instead of the systems that have not worked for collective America for so long. As it stands today, police departments offer a mere 1000 hours of training to inform trainees how to perform a vast multitude of duties. They are expected to be experts in crisis de-escalation, mental health interventionists and drug abuse as well as domestic abuse responders, school “resource officers,”, sexual assault interventionists, traffic law enforcers, and public safety officers authorized to use lethal force, among many other roles.
Each of these duties in and of themselves require a lifetime of training, practice, and refinement. It is wrong to assume police academy trainees can firstly, perfect all of these skills, and secondly, perform them through an approach completely rid of racial bias. Implicit racial bias is a culmination of lifelong social experiences, the internalization of mass media’s messaging, and something heightened through the isolating tactics used to train police to see their role as the enforcers of order in society, as a position diametrically opposed to what goes on in the communities they “serve.” Implicit bias cannot be unlearned by monthly four hour training sessions (which may be a generous estimate given that the Providence Police Department provides little transparency to the public about how often these sessions take place, stating they are taught at “various frequencies”), as unlearning bias must be a habitual practice regarded with seriousness, and there is hardly any standardized structure to the forms theses sessions take, or measures in place to assess their success. Changing one’s primary response to a perceived threat is a continual process of reversing and building new habits. Bias training as it currently exists, simply does not reduce inequitable outcomes. It simply does not cut it. (See here and here.)
When murders occur, and cannot be stopped by police in the moment, police forces often resort to predictive policing, or the hyper surveillance and criminalization of the low income communities that data shows crime occurs within most often. (Convo with PPD Detective Steele). This only leads to greater hostility between police and these communities, and more frequent hostile interactions, as these communities know all too well the oppressive circumstances they exist within, the factors that necessitate survival crime in the first place, and the ways militarized, hyper-present police forces will not better these circumstances, but instead serve as a reactive means of escalating distress. The Rhode Island Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, and the use of qualified immunity, make it virtually impossible for police to be held accountable for the harms they commit, whether against innocent civilians, those they impose the role of witness upon, or those who are suspected of committing a crime. Being merely suspected of a crime by police, or even confirmed to have committed a crime, does not warrant a death sentence or being harmed in any manner at the hands of police. It is the system itself; the institutions that police, enforce law, “protect,” and decide who is worthy of full citizenship, liberty and even life, that must be rehabilitated, not the individuals and communities who live under repressive circumstances. Community wellness must be about getting to the root of such circumstances and working towards redressing them, as well as restructuring the institutions that create and perpetuate them.The state has long been an inequitable arbiter of rights, and it’s time that we take matters into our own hands, and address our most pressing needs ourselves, as a community.
Envisioning Alternatives to Policing and Incarceration:
With an understanding of the fact that police have been overburdened with the variety of situations they are required to resolve, that police departments do an insufficient job of reducing implicit bias, and that predictive policing puts us further at risk, we must next think of how we can support our community and create public systems that don’t lead to similar disparate outcomes. Some of those alternatives could look like civilian-led crisis intervention teams composed of highly trained professionals, including nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, who would respond to and de-escalate incidents of mental health crisis, situations of domestic abuse, and other violent crises that require so much mental health and resolution work. Native and Indigenous populations, undocumented immigrants, people with disabilities, communities of color, and those within underground labor industries, have already created systems of communal care and accountability that often don’t require the intervention of the state at all to resolve these types of crises.
Known as Restorative Justice, this system is founded on the principle that traditional apparatuses of the criminal justice system typically do not take into account the needs of victims and perpetrators of harm. Restorative Justice works to include everyone involved in an incident in it’s resolution, with a specific focus on reparation for the victim, and prevention of further harm by the perpetrator. It functions with the voluntary participation of victims, offenders, and community members. It often introduces peacemaking circles which focus on non-hierarchical, and humanizing dialogue between community, victim, and offender. One of the most essential tenets of restorative justice is the redefining of crime as a violation of one person by another, rather than an act against the state. It is more comprehensive in it’s approach as it recognizes the short and long term needs of aggressors, victims, and the impacted community as a whole, reaffirming the humanity of all throughout the process. It is something our state should invest in, and observe the impacts of, instead of further raising already exorbitant police department spending budgets. We propose it as an alternative to the failing systems of policing that currently exists in Providence, and a means to gradually transform our local landscape of justice.
[This piece was written with the editing help from directly impacted activists in our community.]
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