Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced the completion of Public Financial Management (PFM) Center for Justice and Safety Finance report on the efficiency of city spending on public safety operations. The report, paid for by an anonymous donor, is from PFM, who years ago completed a financial report that Mayor Elorza credits with helping the city realize better financial health than it has had in decades. PFM, said Elorza “sketched for us a ten-year plan around our finances and our infrastructure.”
The new public safety report provides a series of data-driven policy and operational choices to transition Providence to a prevention-first model of public safety and create a healthier, safer, and more just community. The report will be used to “inform the dialogue” between Providence officials and community members and “identify opportunities to create capacity for prevention-first services and investments in sectors like housing, infrastructure, education, health care, workforce training, behavioral health, and social services, among others to enhance outcomes as part of the City’s commitment to improving social justice and equity.”
“We are living through a once-in-a-generation moment with the ability to influence transformative change in how we approach public safety in our city,” said Mayor Elorza. “We’ve been asking our public safety professionals to do so much more than they did a generation ago and, too often, they are responding to calls that are outside of their scope and training. We should be investing in trained professionals in those areas, to not only shift responsibilities away from public safety, but also deliver more responsive services that better meet the needs of our community.
“We’ve seen that most of the calls, in fact an overwhelming number of calls that come into the police department, are for non-violent incidents,” said Mayor Elorza, “and not only that, but the calls for mental health incidents that our residents are suffering from have increased by two-fold, but even two years ago we were not providing the level of services that our community needed and [we are] certainly not providing it now that our levels have increased.”
“Over the years, and Providence is no exception, we’ve asked our police officers to do non-police work in a lot of areas – mental health – we go because there’s no one else to send,” added Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré. “And we’ve been doing that for a long time – decades even. We know we are not the best trained to respond to those calls.”
PFM’s Ronal Serpas, who helped author the report, said that, “many of the arrests created by the Providence Police Department are understood to be state mandated arrests by either the issuance of a warrant from a court or some regulatory issue such as driving on suspended or revoked licenses. These arrests drove about 25% of all arrests by the Providence Police Department.
“More importantly, we know in Providence and around the nation that these arrests, particularly around regulatory crimes, have a disparate racial and ethnic outcome,” continued Serpas, even though a racial analysis was not the object of the report. “This can tell us that the current system is inefficient and expensive. It also begs the question of how to best service the entire community.”
Both Mayor Elorza and Commissioner Paré stated that Providence has long been a leader in community policing and saw this report as a continuation and refinement of those policies, but during the online presentation of the report, Vanessa Flores-Maldonado co-executive director of PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement) jumped in to note that “community policing is something that we are not asking for as a community because that actually places us in more danger.
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“It is not helpful to have more police that look like us – to give us ice cream only to violate our constitutional rights out on the streets when we’re mourning our community members,” said Florez-Maldonado. “So, as much as Providence is a leader in community policing, that doesn’t mean anything to us because that’s not something that we’re asking for. What we’re asking for is the complete defunding of the Providence Police Department so that we can shape safety in ways that doesn’t include a violent system.”
“From passing the Community Safety Act to nine hours of testimonials from residents at the City Council Finance meeting and numerous community forums and protests, the work of defunding the police and redefining public safety has long existed. And this has been driven my communities of color, low-income folks, queer and trans folks, [and] undocumented refugee communities…” said Shey Rivera Ríos one of two artists (along with Vatic Kuumba and in partnership with PrYSM’s Flores-Maldonado) asked with presenting a vision for community-designed public safety strategies that can make a case for increasing investment into anti-racist institutions with meaningful community ownership.
“Our community’s lived experience with policing and violence and state violence are the most important part of this truth and reconciliation/reparations process,” continued Kuumba. The PFM report is just one piece towards leading “us closer to a world without prisons, without police and without borders and building instead affordable housing, access to health professionals, and policies that help our communities thrive through this impacted moment.”
“In response to the local and national emergency of state-sponsored violence against Black people, artists in Providence organized community forums in the spring and fall of 2020 to hold conversations about public safety and divesting from policing, building upon the work of local community members and organizations such as the Providence Youth Student Movement. These forums transformed into The Moral Documents Project; or MoralDocs. MoralDocs proposes that the City of Providence budgets in a way that reflects antiracist values and leads us into a genuine Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations process.”
This project is a web-based transmedia art project to re-envision public health and safety in Providence. The project will identify current health needs and existing gaps in service, as well as make strategic recommendations about priority issues and opportunities by using film, animation, and design to uplift community stories that present historic and modern harms associated with the complications of public safety and behavioral health. This process involved the creation of an open-source agenda for community forums, informed by data compiled by PrYSM, SISTA Fire, DARE, AMOR-RI, ARISE, Black and Pink, Youth-In-Action, and community partners over the years.
Providence is hosting a series of webinars to provide residents the opportunity to learn about the findings of the report, its recommendations, and to submit questions. Residents and those who would like to sign up to participate in these community meetings around the PFM review can do so here.