Still waiting for the change to come
BY IAN DONNIS
During a summer 2001 gathering outside the West Broadway
Neighborhood Association, Providence Police Chief Richard T. Sullivan told me
that street-level drug dealers were simply too wily for police to be able to
make good cases against them. That the chief's unusual expression of defeat was
followed within weeks by a major bust against some of the same street-level
dealers only confirmed that he had been blowing smoke with the earlier remarks.
With his heightened accessibility and visibility in different neighborhoods,
Sullivan certainly offered a welcome contrast to Urbano Prignano Jr., but his
tenure wasn't without its enigmatic moments.
Last week's decision by acting Mayor John J. Lombardi to replace Sullivan with
Major Guido Laorenza, and Public Safety Commissioner John Partington with
former lieutenant governor Thomas DiLuglio, sent shock waves through
Providence. A majority of city councilors question Lombardi's authority to make
the move, and the Providence Journal editorialized about a "management
mystery" that left many "shak[ing] their heads in wonder." Others, though,
aptly note that there were unresolved issues in the police department long
before Lombardi became acting mayor, and his changes were backed by the Urban
League, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, and the Rhode Island Minority
Police Officers Association.
Few would doubt that many police officers dispatch their responsibilities
honorably and with a true sense of public service. At the same time, the
Providence department has seemed in recent years to be in a state of suspended
animation, in part because of the unresolved allegations of internal wrongdoing
involving promotional exams. And even though Sullivan clearly represented
progress, particularly in comparison to his embarrassing predecessor (who clung
to his job, and enjoyed unstinting public support from former mayor Vincent A.
Cianci Jr., until his position became wholly untenable), the department still
has a way to go in delivering the more responsive kind of community policing
long sought by residents.
Policing is difficult work and making change in a large bureaucracy is
challenging. But to repeat a useful comparison, if a palpable sense of safety
can be brought about in Manhattan - considered not so long ago an unsafe city
that was beyond repair - it should be much easier to improve policing in
Providence. David N. Cicilline, the person most likely to succeed Lombardi in
the mayor's office in January, offers the best hope for making this happen.
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Issue Date: October 11 - 17, 2002