Editorial & Opinion

Steve Ahlquist: Violence in Providence has been politically weaponized

The political response to the recent violence in Providence is being used to win a battle in the culture war, and is not likely to be an honest look at the root causes.
Photo for Steve Ahlquist: Violence in Providence has been politically weaponized

Published on August 10, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The sudden rise in violent crime in Providence has brought higher scrutiny from the press and sent politicians scurrying to offer solutions and to assign blame to political opponents, sometimes with insensitivity to the complex issues of race, policing, criminalization, poverty and more.

For instance, during his press conference last week, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee said that drive-by murders, such as that of 24-year-old Miya Brophy-Baermann, don’t happen anywhere else in the state, perhaps forgetting the drive-by murder of 19-year-old Tatyana Shawnte Francis in Pawtucket in May.

Meanwhile, Governor McKee, Providence City Council President John Igliozzi, City Councilor Nicholas Narducci Jr, Mayors of neighboring cities, right-wing media outlets and candidates to fill the term limited seat of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza are scrambling to assign blame to Providence’s political leadership.

Part of the narrative of these various analyses and political attacks is that Providence is soft on crime, the evidence being the series of protests last year which resulted in a spate of arrests, Providence being declared a “sanctuary city” by Mayor Elorza, the passage of the comprehensive police reform bill the Community Safety Act, and activist calls to defund and abolish the police.

Last year the Providence Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the police union, claimed that a crime wave then was the result of calls to defund the police, missing the obvious point that no cuts to the police budget have ever been made. In fact, despite calls to reallocate money from policing to community programs to reduce crime, the Providence City Council passed a large increase in the police budget and pledged to add more police to the force. (That police academy is underway now, and some are calling for the immediate start of another academy after this one graduates to increase the number of police even more.)

This time around people are criticizing Mayor Elorza for refusing to accept the help of State Police to patrol the streets alongside Providence Police Officers. Governor McKee, Council President Igliozzi, and even Mayoral Candidate Brett Smiley have all called for this, despite the fact that Mayor Elorza has never refused State Police help, and as anyone knows who may have been involved in the series of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the State Police are always on hand when local officials ask. (Governor Gina Raimondo last year went even further, having the National Guard in full uniform sporting combat rifles on the streets to ensure the safety of the Cheesecake Factory downtown.) As Mayor Elorza explained in a press conference last week, Providence Police leaders are in weekly communication with State Police, and they work together all the time.

The recent rise in violent crime comes at a time when overall crime is down. These high profile murders and attacks are tragic, disturbing and visceral, grabbing headlines and stoking fears, but the political response – the cacophony of statements attacking Providence as a City and playing into racist tropes and the calling for more police miss the point:

Crime is not the result of too few police officers patrolling the streets – it’s the result of unequal economic opportunity exacerbated by the easy availability of guns and systemic racism.

Providence has limited ways of dealing with unequal economic opportunity, but doing something real about quality low-income housing might be a good start. Spending the large influx of money, over $166 million, coming from the American Rescue Plan Act in ways that impact low-income neighborhoods would be a help. Not paying students in our summer jobs programs less than the current minimum wage might help.

Providence has almost no ability to deal with the proliferation of guns on the streets. The Rhode Island General Assembly passed a pre-emption law a few years back preventing municipalities from adopting gun laws stricter than the state’s laws. Providence can confiscate guns when they find them, and hold straw purchasers as culpable as state law currently allows, but without strong state legislation, the City’s hands are tied.

There have been calls to keep recreation centers open for longer hours, and to increase spending on the summer jobs program. These are good ideas. Other ways to help our youth should also be explored. But when we allow young people working summer job programs to be paid less than they are paid working at McDonald’s, we are actively devaluing them and the jobs they are doing. It gives the impression that flipping burgers is worth more than running a summer camp program.

When we speak about systemic racism, we need look no farther than the recent statements made by police officers in Providence, referring to community members as “animals.” Though that statement came from one officer, it was an officer with years on the force, and it was not disputed by any officers in the moment. How can the police serve a community they fundamentally do not respect?

Structurally, many police officers working in Providence do not live in the City. Michael Imondi, the President of the Providence FOP, is a resident of West Warwick. This means that very little of the money spent on Imondi’s salary goes back into the community in terms of housing or shopping in Providence. Instead, Imondi maintains a residence in West Warwick, and presumably does most of his shopping there.

Every dollar spent on a program that allows Providence residents to get paid increases the wealth of Providence. Depending on the number of police who do not live in the City, most of the dollars we spend on policing leave the City, and go towards increasing the wealth of other municipalities. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, for instance, has a large salary and does not live in Providence.

Increasing the number of police officers means increasing the number of dollars that leave the City. It also gives us a possible clue as to why mayors of nearby cities, like Cranston and North Providence, have been so vocal about crime in Providence. Not only is it politically expedient to cash in on the fear of crime, it’s profitable in terms of the tax base and local spending to house the police officers who only go to Providence to police our residents.

Tonight the Providence City Council is holding a special meeting to discuss solutions to the sudden increase in violent crime. Listen attentively to what is said. Some will be playing this moment for political gain – fear mongering the issue to score political points and to increase policing in our City, ignoring the root causes of the issue. Others will be more nuanced. Will any offer real solutions that get to the root of the problem?

Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. Old rivalries are at work here. There are old scores to be settled. The FOP and Councilmember Narducci are still sore about the passage of the Community Safety Act. Others might be mad about statements made by Elorza saying that Providence won’t collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he declared Providence a “sanctuary city.”

The left scored big wins across the state in the last election and the right will use this sudden increase in violence to try and reverse those gains, while settling personal scores. It does not seem to be a coincidence that Governor McKee has been so outspoken on crime in Providence so soon after Mayor Elorza complained about the newly signed teacher’s contract that McKee negotiated.

I’ll say it again: There are agendas at play here. Wherever you stand on the issue of criminalization and policing, pay attention.

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