PERA needs teeth: How law-enforcement officials have undermined the Community Safety ActCommissioner Paré’s interpretation of the law regarding PERA ignores the “history, context and legislative goal” of the Community Safety Act.
Published on November 12, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist
Since its creation the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) has faced an uphill battle in its efforts to be a true force in holding the Providence Police Department to a higher level of accountability. PERA is the only civilian police oversight board in Rhode Island, and was formed as a result of historic legislation, the Community Safety Act (renamed the Providence Community Police Relations Act shortly before passage) that guarantees protections and oversight to civilians being stopped, investigated or arrested by the Providence Police.
One recent example of the way PERA has been sidelined and pushed back against is the way PERA has been excluded as a full investigatory partner in the Jhamal Gonsalves incident. In a letter to PERA Executive Director Jose Batista, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré justified PERA’s exclusion from the investigation by drawing a distinction between investigations conducted entirely under the purview of the Providence Police Department, and investigations that include outside agencies such as the Rhode Island State Police and/or the Attorney General’s office.
“As you know,” wrote Paré, “pursuant to PERA ordinance 18 1/2-2(h), the executive director’s authority is ‘to monitor internal investigation(s) by the police department.’ Therefore, it is important to note that this is not an ‘internal investigation’ that the Providence Police Department is investigating at this point. Rather, it is a larger criminal investigation being conducted in conjunction with other outside criminal investigatory entities and not exclusively ‘by the police department.’ Therefore, and respectfully, PERA does not have the authority – at this point – to monitor this active criminal investigation involving the state Attorney General and the other investigatory entities.”
Given Attorney General Peter Neronha‘s updated and significantly expanded protocol for the review of use of force by state and municipal law enforcement agencies, which now allows his office to review most police use of force incidents in Rhode Island, PERA is effectively barred from participating in the investigations in all use of force incidents in Providence., under Paré’s legal interpretation o the statute. (See: Neronha issues updated protocol for Attorney General’s review of use of force by law enforcement)
Responding to Commissioner Paré, Director Batista writes, “It is difficult to describe this interpretation with any other word except disingenuous.”
Commissioner Paré’s interpretation of the law regarding PERA ignores the “history, context and legislative goal of a statute,” wrote Director Batista continuing:
“The work of PERA is deeply rooted in the history of our city. The original PERA board was empaneled after the tragic killing of Sgt Cornel Young Jr in the year 2000. Furthermore, the work of civilian oversight in the City of Providence traces back to the 1970’s when the late Mr Michael Van Leestan lead a group of African-American activist to successfully sue the City of Providence on the basis of civil rights violations by the Providence Police Department.
“Indeed, this lawsuit gave rise to a consent decree, which formed the foundation of what would later become the work of civilian oversight.
“How, then, can your office justify an interpretation of the PERA ordinance that excludes civilian oversight in a case that is as critical, relevant and high-profile as that of the investigation into the matter involving Mr Jahmal Gonsalves?“
Director Batista went on to describe Paré’s legal analysis as “a deliberate choice by your office to exercise your authority in a way that is inconsistent with what city law attempts to accomplish via the PERA statute as well as via the Providence Community Police Relations Act (PCPRA).”
Batista then went on to describe times when Commissioner Paré or his office “conveyed information to PERA and/or the public that was materially incomplete.” Director Batista writes:
“On July 31, 2018, you testified during a PERA board meeting and told the PERA board there was no gang database maintained by the police department. The public learned, via public record request in May 2019, that indeed there was still a gang database and that it had been active since at least December 2018. Moreover, this database still, over 18 months after the implementation of the PCPRA, did not conform with city law, resulting in a federal lawsuit and unnecessary expense to the taxpayers of our city.
“More relevant to the investigation at hand, earlier this year, your office informed the public and the media of an incident that took place on April 19, 2020 whereby officer Sergeant Joseph Hanley ‘punched’ or ‘assaulted’ a man in handcuffs.
“PERA leamed of this incident at the same time the public learned of it via an article published on WPRI and, for the first time, exercised its authority to review this investigation via our own independent investigator. Our investigators report’ revealed details and facts about the incident that were deeply troubling and completely undisclosed by your office.“
In its Summer 2020 Bi-Annual report to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and the Providence City Council, PERA outlined nine recommendations “as a means to immediately and substantively addresses the demand for justice and reform facing Providence.”
- Endorse an official, independent and civilian review of the Providence Police Department “Use of Force” procedures that will ultimately issue a report identifying any and all opportunities to shift toward policies and procedures rooted in de-escalation;
- Endorse an official, independent and civilian review of the Providence Police Department “Violent Crimes Task Force” that will ultimately issue a report identifying any and all opportunities to shift toward policies and procedures rooted in de-escalation;
- Endorse an official, independent and civilian review of any and all “military equipment” obtained by the Providence Police Department over the last 20 years;
- Endorse an official, independent and civilian review of, but not limited to, the materials rubric and lectures included in the “training academy” for Providence Police Department.
- Endorse an official, independent and civilian review of any and all “disciplinary matrix” and/or any and all policies used by the Providence Police Department to determine the appropriate discipline for misconduct by Providence Police officers.
- Codify a policy whereby the Internal Affairs Bureau shall inform PERA of every complaint of misconduct filed with the Bureau as a part of a broader transition to a civilian led oversight model and the appropriate reallocation of PPD funds to support it.
- Send a joint letter to the Governor, Speaker and Senate President announcing your support for reforming the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights;
- Codify a “Duty to Intervene” ordinance whereby Providence police officers who witness excessive force and/or serious misconduct by another Providence police officer will be statutorily required to intervene or shall face disciplinary action.
- Amend the Providence Community Police Relations Act (“PCPRA”) to reflect the following changes:
a. Reinstate the original name “Community Safety Act” (“CSA”);
b. Equip PERA with the investigative tools (or, more colloquially, the “teeth”) it needs to properly conduct independent civilian oversight of the Providence Police Department; such as autonomous subpoena ability,
c. Codify a minimum annual budget for PERA of not less than 2% of the Providence Police Department budget
As of this writing, none of these nine recommendations is under serious consideration by city or state officials.
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