Policing

Hiring committee member breaks silence on Michael Stephens as PVD Police Major

“The number one person was a unanimous vote of everyone in the room, an active Providence police officer – and numbers two and three were tied,” said hiring committee members Kira Wills and Lisa Scorpio. “One was an active Latino police officer and one was a retired Providence police officer. And then number four – the lowest – who wasn’t even supposed to go before the Mayor, was added at the very last minute – Michael Stephens.”
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Published on October 24, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced, just before the Labor Day long weekend, that the Providence Director of Recreation, Michael Stephens, had been hired at the rank of Major to command the Providence Police Department‘s Community Relations and Diversion Services division. Stephens, who has no training in policing, has worked in the City’s Recreation Department for 24 years running basketball leagues and as a coach.

After complaints were made by Providence City Council President John Igliozzi and the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers regarding the hiring of Michael Stephens, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré told the Providence Journal, “Mr Stephens was selected after an application and interview process.”

Weeks later, Council President Igliozzi sent a letter to Paré alleging a “potential appearance of impropriety in the selection and hiring process” of Stephens.

Igliozzi wrote, “According to several individuals who stated that they participated on the hiring committee for the position, Michael Stephens also was a member of that hiring committee. These individuals explained that after Mr Stephens participated in the hiring process as a member of the committee, he then became a candidate for the position, and that while Mr Stephens was not among the top three candidates recommended by the hiring committee to you and the Mayor, he was nonetheless selected for the position.”

Paré denied any impropriety.

UpriseRI spoke to hiring committee member Kira Wills and to a member of the Black Major Movement, Lisa Scorpio, to get some background on the process that led to the controversial hiring of Michael Stephens. Kira Wills is also a member of the Black Major Movement.

Lisa Scorpio: Let me start by telling you what the goal of the Black Major Movement is. Whenever a new academy of officers is graduated, all we ever hear is that it’s “the most diverse class, the most diverse class, the most diverse class,” but nobody Black can get promoted past Sergeant, and the retention rate for Black officers isn’t good. The goal of the Black Major Movement was not community engagement. They turned it into a community engagement job, which we were happy about, but we just wanted a Major. The idea was to get a Black Sergeant promoted to the rank of Major because there are huge problems in the promotion process. Latino officers, though not as quickly as they should, are moving up the ranks. We now have two white Majors, two Latino Majors and no Black Majors.

The Black Major Movement started six years ago. The very first meeting was Kobi Dennis, James Vincent, and myself. We met with Mayor Jorge Elorza, [but ultimately] Commissioner Steven Paré shut us down when said no Black officers were qualified. At that time Anthony Roberson was in college for his doctorate.

[Given this response from city officials, the Black Major Movement dropped the issue. Roberson is now the Chief of the Central Falls Police Department.]

Scorpio: We dropped the issue at that point because there was nothing we could do. We had one meeting. There were quite a few community members at that initial meeting, but the bottom line from the Administration was that no one was qualified.

Then, five years later we have all this social injustice awareness going on in the country. We think, maybe now we can get a Black Major. So we sent the Mayor a letter, and we never heard from him. [See blow for the full text of that letter.] So we sent out something that said we were going to have a press conference and let everybody know what was going on, but on the day of the press conference the Mayor’s office called us and asked, “Please don’t have the press conference.” Though we didn’t know it at the time, that was the day Anthony Roberson was announced as the new Central Falls Police Chief. That would have been a double whammy for the Mayor if we had our press conference. We said then that we wanted to meet with the Mayor regarding a Black Major.

UpriseRI: So Roberson was not qualified to be promoted to Major in Providence, but he was qualified to take over the entire Central Falls Police Department? Over the last five years, it should have been possible to get someone on a career track, actually multiple officers, on career tracks towards promotion.

Scorpio: The truth is that if Chief Hugh Clements wanted a command staff of color, he could have it because there’s something called chief points. When you’re taking the test for promotion in the police department, it’s very, very tight. It’s very competitive. For example, the top five candidates might be 96.1 96.2 96.2 96.3. But the Chief has something called chief points and it’s five points. He can give them to whomever he wants. I even brought this up with the Mayor at one of the meetings. The Commissioner was at every meeting, the Chief was never at our meetings. I told the Mayer that the Chief once gave five points to 15th ranked applicant. And number 15 turned into number one. It’s not that Black officers aren’t taking the tests and it’s not that they’re not passing them – these chief points put other people over the edge. So that’s how the Chief controls the command staff – he can make anybody a Lieutenant or a Captain. Not a Major because a Major is an appointment.

UpriseRI: Can I ask about that? How does the appointment work?

Scorpio: In the past a Mayor says, “I want Steve Ahlquist to be a Major,” calls him in and he’s a Major. That’s it. No interview, no nothing. At one point I said to the Mayor that as a white person, what this looks like is whenever a Black person is going in for an administration job they have to jump through hoops. We went through an eight month process to get a Black Major and we didn’t get one. No white officers have to go through this. Now we have two Majors the Mayor appointed that didn’t have to go through the process, instead of our recommendations. Our committee recommended three officers, none of whom were promoted.

UpriseRI: So let me get a timeline of events. When was the hiring committee first created?

Kira Wills: We met with the mayor from December to October 8th. In March the Mayor agreed to establish an Interview Committee. This was around the time of the first passage of the city budget in the City Council. They need approval in the budget for the position. The Black Major Movement asked for me to represent them on the committee. Commissioner Paré contacted me on March 4th. We spoke with the Mayor again on March 22 and asked that one more member be added to represent the youth, Wole Akinibi. The Commissioner noted that Michael Stephens was already on the committee and that he works with the youth. We countered that Michael Stephens works in administration, and is not directly having  daily interaction with the youth. The Mayor agreed to Wole.

On April 2nd the Interview Committee has its first Zoom meeting with the Commissioner. On the call were Wole Akinbi, Carla Cuellar, Cedric Huntley, Michael Stephens, Jim Vincent, and myself.

We kept in contact through Zoom and emails. On April 13 the job description was sent out to the Interview Committee, blind cc. No names were visible.

On April 23rd the Commissioner sent an email naming a new member, Reverend Israel Mercedes, as well as Wole Akinbi, Carla Cuellar, Cedric Huntley, Jim Vincent, and myself. Michael Stephens was no longer named as being on the hiring committee.

On May 12th we received a spreadsheet with a list of 43 applicants and Michael Stephens’ name was on it. I asked by email if that was Michael Stephens from the Rec Department. No one replied. On June 8th the Commissioner sent an email saying he will cull the names down to make it manageable, leaving 8 – 10 candidates for the committee to interview.

[The Commissioner culled the list to seven candidates. Two candidates have no police experience and five others have police experience, with four being current Providence Police officers with more than 15 years on the force.]

Scorpio: Throughout the whole thing, we heard rumors that Michael Stephens was going to be the new Major and we ignored the rumors because we had met with the Mayor so often.

[The interviews were conducted in June. In July the committee met in person to discuss which candidates to forward to the Mayor. The first candidate, an existing officer, received a unanimous vote as the top candidate (7 votes). There was a tie for second between two candidates, one an existing officer and another who was a retired officer but still working in law enforcement elsewhere. They both received 5 votes. The fourth candidate (4 votes) was Michael Stephens. He was initially not chosen to be forwarded to the Mayor but after Cedric Huntley and James Vincent spoke on his behalf, he was added as a fourth candidate to forward to the Mayor, according to Wills. Reverend Mercedes did not attend every interview, added Wills, and after interviews had been done he voted on the rankings after being updated by the Commissioner.]

Scorpio: The Mayor said to us throughout the meetings, “Trust me. I hear the goal. I understand what needs to be done. I can’t say I’m going to hire a Black Major because it’s against the law, but I hear you. Trust me.” He said “trust me” so much we got worried. We had a a discussion about the fact that he said “trust me” so much. Everybody would come to me and say, “I hear it’s Mike Stephens” and I would say, no, the Mayor said to trust him and I’m going to trust him. And I trusted him. Even the day before Mike Stephens was appointed, I got a million phone calls – “He’s appointing Mike tomorrow.” I didn’t believe it. The Mayor said trust me, I trusted him.

Wills: Part of the problem for me is that in stating that he was the best candidate you’re further denigrating the existing police officers, white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, all of them. The purpose of the Black Major Movement is to make systemic change. Our intention was to explain that systemic change has to start with the internal culture. Internal culture changes with people that are within the culture saying, “The culture isn’t right. We need to make change.” Sometimes that works with external pressures, but it’s more likely to be accepted if it’s people from inside that say, “We have to evolve, we need to make a few changes.”

UpriseRI: You’re saying that Michael Stephens, as an outsider to the Police Department, doesn’t have buy in from rank-and-file officers.

Wills: When asked how that would work Michael Stephens said that he would talk to people. He would talk to people and he would get information. One of the questions was about the learning curve. How do you expect to get to the top of that learning curve?

Another point that was missed is that the position of community relations within the police department already exists. Henry Remolina was the person in charge of that department prior to getting appointed to another Major position. So when the City Council President says, “We need a community relations department,” there wasn’t a complete understanding that the community relations department exists.

They do not have the capacity right now to, for instance, go to businesses and talk about cybersecurity or preventative safety assessments. Ideally, what could have happened is that that community relations department could have been absorbed under the new community relations Major.

Scorpio: The community relations job was their idea. We jumped on it because it sounded like a great job, but we just wanted a Major.

Wills: And an impactful Major, someone with a budget and actual duties, not just to sit in a room.

UpriseRI: Can you talk about the Michael Stephens interview? Was it the best interview?

Wills: It was not the best interview. For instance, Sayles Street. Someone asked how he would handle a situation like that. His answer was, [paraphrasing] “Well, if I’d known that the families had been feuding, I would have made officers available to do things differently.” That’s not answering the question of what you would have done in that situation.

UpriseRI: Did you ask the same questions to everyone?

Wills: The questions were asked uniformly.

UpriseRI: What better answers did you receive to the question about Sayles Street?

Wills: The better responses were, “Knowing how those families have had difficulties and knowing that the situation was not appropriate, I would have had the officers stand back, not interact, and let the families know that we’re here to resolve one issue. I’d focus on that one issue and not pay attention to the peripheral things that were going on.” That approach seems more likely to deescalate.

Scorpio: There were at least 18 officers on Sayles Street. The Black family owned their house. If you watch the video, 18 officers were in front of the Black family’s house. When police approached the Black family because they were in the street, the Latino family next door was also in the street. You saw that there were officers speaking Spanish to them. If we had a Black Major at that time, I guarantee that what happened would not have happened because it would have been deescalated.

Michael Stephens said in the interview, when asked how he would get buy-in from the other police officers, that he wouldn’t worry about the senior officers because they wouldn’t buy-in any way. He was only interested in the recruits.

Wills: Yes, he did say he was interested in the younger ones because older officers are more established in their ways. I thought, but they’re the supervisors. They’re the leads while young officers are doing their training. Young officers are paired to work with senior officers. So you would most certainly need to have the older officers buy in because the older ones are staying. The younger ones don’t stay.

UpriseRI: You’re saying that younger officers come onto the force and they don’t stay because they don’t like what they’re seeing.

Wills: Exactly. And they don’t feel that there’s room for promotion. It’s not just about what they’re seeing. There’s no opportunity to rise up.

Scorpio: Right now morale is so low because they hired a Major that’s not a police officer. What you just told every officer, and not just Black officers, is that if the highly qualified three officers we put in front of the Commissioner and the Mayor couldn’t get promoted, but the recreations director got it, how am I ever going to get it? I know young officers that are looking for other jobs, young Black officers, because they know they have no chance in the Providence Police Department. It’s just one thing after another against Black officers.

I brought up Providence College to the Chief and the Commissioner. Three years ago there was a big basketball game. And all the kids went out into the street and they went in someone’s backyard and stole their picnic bench. They brought that picnic bench to the middle of the street and they lit it on fire. The police came, the fire department came. The kids all jumped all over the fire truck. One kid took a vodka bottle, threw it at a police officer and hit him in the head. There was not one arrest.

There is a difference in policing. A Black Major can affect policy. He has a voice at command staff meetings. Maybe policing would change. But the Commissioner was highly insulted and said there was no difference in policing.

UpriseRI: Had that been a white family on Sayles Street, and all other things being equal, the police would never have used pepper spray. That little girl would never have been pepper sprayed. The police would have worked harder to deescalate. I also think that had the officers actually lived in that community – because I don’t think any of the 18 or more officers who were on duty that day lived in the community – if they worked in a community that they lived in, they would have worked harder to deescalate.

Scorpio: I want to make it clear we don’t care about Michael Stephens. We have nothing against him. It’s just that he got this job over a police officer and this job was for a police officer. When he was announced the administration was scrambling with the job description because the job was never written for a non-police officer. They still haven’t said what his real job description is.

UpriseRI: Can you give me your reasons for coming out now and talking about this publicly now? What happened that made you feel that this is the time to blow this all up? What motivated you?

Wills: The motivation is the lying. The lying about who was on the committee, what choices were available and about how the pool was put together and why it ended up getting culled down. We were not able to eliminate people selected for an interview. I think it’s extremely important to say that there were qualified Black officers that had applied, that were interviewed, that were unanimously voted on as top candidates. The number one person was a unanimous vote of everyone in the room…

Scorpio: …an active Providence police officer, and then numbers two and three were tied. One was an active Latino police officer and one was a retired Providence police officer. And then number four – the lowest – who wasn’t even supposed to go before the Mayor, was added at the very last minute – Michael Stephens.

Wills: Cedric and Jim really pushed hard to add Mike Stephens to the list. It was going to be just the three people.

UpriseRI: Why were they so gung ho for this candidate? What reasons did they give?

Wills: They were saying that he’s already worked with the community. He’s already established himself with the community, and that he’s a good candidate because he knows people. But in my opinion he does not know people well enough, on a working level within the department, to get buy in and support from officers within a short period of time.

During our last discussion, the Mayor said, “I didn’t commit to selecting the top candidate. I never committed to selecting the top candidate that you ranked.”

Wills: I asked the Mayor why he asked us to rank the candidates that we forwarded to him if he wasn’t going to pick the top candidate.

The Mayor said, “ I didn’t commit to picking the top candidate. I never committed to picking the top candidate that you ranked.” He went on to explain that 25 years ago when a Black Major [Cornell Young Sr] was in a position on the Command Staff the internal changes were not done, “so what makes you think that a police officer can get it done now?”

I said that during the time of that Major being on the Command Staff the position was not given any depth or teeth for him to make change and that there were extenuating circumstances that affected the impact a person could make at that time. His son, Cornell Young Jr, had been shot and killed by a fellow police officer and the Major had become ill.

Scorpio: I replied that because of what happened with one Black officer 25 years ago, all Black officers are now held responsible for that and not be promoted? But white officers can harm and beat Black and brown bodies and still get promoted?

I though he would pick number one, who was unanimous, not number four.

This job really could have made a difference. Children in the community could have seen this man in a white shirt, walking around, talking to them, telling them the police are good, the police is their friend, the police want to help. He could have made changes within the police department, showing them that a strong Black officer can do a great job, can be a great role model and has great ideas.

Wills: We once again forfeited that opportunity in favor of politics as usual.


Here’s the full letter, signed by dozens of community members, activists and politicians sent Mayor Elorza on November 4, 2020. The names of the signatories have been redacted:

Dear Mayor Elorza, 

Five years ago, we met with you regarding the appointment of a Black Police Sergeant to the Rank of a Black  Providence Police Major within the Providence Police Department. At that time, our goal was to promote a  qualified Black Providence Police Sergeant to the rank of Providence Police Major and our goal remains the same.  Providence Police Sergeant is the highest rank a Black officer has reached since Cornel Young, Sr. in 1995. Over  the past five years, not a single Black Providence Police Sergeant has been promoted to Lieutenant or Captain,  which would be a pathway to becoming a Providence Police Major.  

In your efforts to improve our quality of life within the Black community you have brought forth the talk of  reparations. We certainly appreciate that you have made an executive order to remove the word Plantations  from city buildings, city documents and city paychecks. This has showcased your ability to make impactful  decisions on behalf of the Black community. 

Among other structural discrepancies, our community is very concerned about the weekly Providence Police  Command Staff Meetings conducted without anyone to represent the Black voice as well as Black Providence  Police officers. A Black Providence Police Major can create policy, could attend, and interject in command  meetings and if problems arise, a Black Providence Police Major would be someone Black and other officers of  color could confide in. Once appointed, the Black Providence Police Major would be directly involved in  discussions concerning culturally relevant recruitment, neighborhood crime, community relations, and most of  all policing policies.  

As you can see in the table below the makeup of the Providence Police Department is not reflective of the citizens  of Providence.

Demographics of Providence Demographics of PPD
54.2% white 67.3 White
16.0% black 11.61% Black
43% Hispanic 18.25 Hispanic
6.10% Asian 2.61% Asian
1.2 % Native American 0.24 American Indian
0.2% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander 2.61 Asian/Pacific Island
17.95 % other races
4.4% Two or more races

As you can see below, in the last five years not one Black Providence Police officer has been promoted. Why  should we continue sending our Black brothers and sisters to the academy to become Providence Police officers  if the rank of Sergeant is the highest position a Black Providence Police officer can attain?

Command Staff By Race
4 Majors 3-White 1-Hispanic
8 Captains 6-white 2-Hispanic
17 Lieutenants 15 white 2-Hispanic
57 Sergeants 47-White 5-Black 1 —API 4-Hispanic

Over the last five years, there were 33 Providence Police officers promoted, 26 were White and 7 were Hispanic,  but not one Black Providence Police Sergeant moved up the ranks. White officers are promoted at an exceptional  rate and even Hispanic officers are being promoted but again, not one Black Providence Police officer.

Major/Promotions Race Years of  service
2017 White 30
2016 White 27
2016 Hispanic 22
Captain/Promotions
2020 White 23
2020 White 26
2020 White 15
2019 White 22
2019 Hispanic 22
2019 White 30
2017 White 20
2017 White 22
2017 Hispanic 28
2015 White 28
2015 Hispanic 21
2016 White 19
Lieutenant/Promotions
2020 Hispanic 18
2020 White 15
2020 White 18
2020 White 21
2019 White 22
2019 White 17
2019 White 14
2019 Hispanic 17
2017 White 14
2017 White 14
2017 White 20
2017 White 18
2017 White 12
2015 White 20
2015 White 20
2015 White 10
2015 Hispanic 20
2015 White 10

Below are officers who have, in the past, skipped rank. For example; Monti Monteiro was the last person who  skipped ranks to Major in 2004 and he came from the Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office. Mr. Monteiro  was not even among the rank and file of the Providence Police Department. We are asking for the same privilege  

for one of our Black Providence Police Officers.

Nationwide Mayors have the authority to appoint Police Majors  and other ranks at will.

Skipped Rank
Francisco Colon 
Paul Kennedy
Paul Fitzgerald
Rich Tamburini
Cornel Young 
Urbano Pirignano 
Steven Campbell
Promoted to Major from outside
Andy Rosenzweig from NY
Monti Monteiro from ATF

What we would like to see is the immediate appointment of a Black Providence Police Major who will become a  direct reflection of us. 

Mr. Mayor, we are requesting a meeting at your earliest convenience. Please call or email.

Sources:  

  • Providence Demographics; City of Providence website,  
  • Providence Police Demographics; Providence Police Department 
  • Command Staff Table, Providence Police Department 
  • Skipped Rank, Providence Police OfficersState Police Officers

See also: Black Major Movement demands diversity among high ranking police in Providence

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