The Community Safety Act

On Thursday, the City Council will debate an ordinance called the Community Safety Act.  If enacted, it will supplement a State law called the Comprehensive Community Police Relationship Act of 2015.  The State law contains a ban on racial profiling, regulates certain police interactions with citizens and creates a database that can be used for evaluating discriminatory practices by individual police officers.

The Providence Community Safety Act builds on the 2015 State Act by enacting a broader ban on racial profiling, regulating more police practices that community members believe are misused in a discriminatory manner and defining a greater role for the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), a group of civilians charged with monitoring police conduct.  In considering this type of legislation, difficult issues arise about how to address situations in which  an important law enforcement tool may be misused in a discriminatory manner.  One possible solution is to use the database to identify the individuals who are profiling or discriminating.  Another other way is to categorically ban the use of the  law enforcement tool under any circumstances.  While the second alternative offers a “bright line” to ensure against misuse, it also can compromise the police’s ability to protect the public at large.

At the public hearing on April 10, Commissioner Pare raised issues of this general kind, including the proposed Act’s ban on “pretextual” stops and the potential suppression of evidence for conduct not permitted under the Act.  Consider the case of a police officer stopping a driver for no reason other than a (trivial) broken tail light, and finding (illegally owned) automatic weapons in the car from the stop.  According to last week’s version of the Community Safety Act, the weapons could be excluded from evidence.  Under this scenario, the gun runner (or the murderer with the dead body in the back seat, etc.) could not be prosecuted, a departure from the mainstream view across the country.

Over last weekend, the parties conferred and an amended version of the Community Safety Act was presented and passed by the Ordinance Committee on April 17.  To the credit of everyone involved, the amended version intends to restore most of the law key law enforcement tools (including “pretextual” stops and language that appears to rule out the suppression of evidence based merely on the violation of the ordinance) that had been taken away in previous versions.  I commend the City Council staff, the Police Department and the City Solicitor’s office for their hard work in collaborating to address these difficult issues.  With that said, the Attorney General’s office (who had expressed concerns about the prior draft) was not present in the discussions.  With that in mind, Commissioner Pare indicated last night he now supported the Community Safety Act subject to the Attorney General’s review.

Both Commissioner Pare and Councilwoman Harris have asked the Attorney General to carry out the promptest possible review of the most recently revised Ordinance as approved by the Ordinance Committee at Monday night’s meeting.  If the Attorney General can provide a favorable review before Thursday night’s meeting, I will be able to vote in favor of the Community Safety Act without reservation.  Alternatively, I am optimistic the City Council will agree to amend the Act to address any specific issues the Attorney General identifies.

Ideally, we will learn the results of that review prior to a vote, but this matter has been scheduled for a vote on Thursday which might not provide the Attorney General with enough time.  In this posture, the City Charter’s requirement that ordinances must be passed at two separate meetings (at least 48 hours apart) may prove beneficial.  It is the City Solicitor’s opinion that the latest version probably will be acceptable to the Attorney General, so if we do not hear from the Attorney General before Thursday, I will be able to vote in favor of initial passage of the Community Safety Act at that time.  I will, however, want to hear from the Attorney General before voting to approve it for second, or final passage.  A positive review will allow me to vote in favor a second time as well; alternatively, I am optimistic the City Council will agree to any necessary amendments should the Attorney General raise specific issues.

This is a complex and important piece of legislation, and I support the general goals it is trying to achieve.  Each successive version of the Act has improved the balance it strikes between reducing discriminatory police practices and preserving important law enforcement tools.  It appears that we are now very close to a version everyone can support, if we are not already there.

I appreciate the effort and engagement so  many have invested on this particular issue to improve our City.