Step to raise accountability remains on hold
by Ian Donnis
Despite the widespread view that the process for airing misconduct
complaints against police is flawed, a proposal to introduce an independent
liaison between the public and Providence police continues to languish.
The concept grew out of talks several years ago between Steven J. O'Rourke,
executive director of the Providence Housing Authority, and Paul L. Lewis, a
Providence-based consultant and former running back for the New England
Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, who has worked with at-risk youth for the last
As envisioned, "this position is not for the person to investigate the
police," says Lewis, but it would include mediation efforts between police and
the community, as well as the chance to make independent observations on
alleged cases of misconduct.
Under the existing process, the strongest discipline that can be imposed by
Police Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. for wrongdoing by police is a two-day
suspension. After an internal affairs investigation, complaints by citizens to
the police department are decided by a police union representative and two
other officers -- a process that many residents find intimidating and lacking
"We do need something else in place," says Public Safety Commissioner John J.
Partington Jr. "There's got to be something other than walking off the street
into internal affairs."
The idea of involving civilians in reviewing allegations of misconduct tends
to be fiercely opposed by police officers, who believe that civilians are
hard-pressed to understand the difficult split-second decisions that must be
made by police. But although Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. and Prignano
are largely content with the status quo on this issue, they both support the
concept of creating an independent liaison between the police and the
community. "It seems like a good answer to a lot of questions," says Cianci.
Adds Prignano, "I welcome all the help I can get."
But the proposal to bring Lewis into the position remains in limbo because of
a lack of funding for the job, according to Partington and Cianci. For all the
progress Providence has made in the last 10 years, it's telling that it remains
a struggle to take a small, incremental step toward enhancing accountability
and public confidence in the handling of misconduct cases.
As it is, the Fraternal Order of Police has typically rallied around officers
accused of wrongdoing, regardless of the validity of the allegations. Officer
Michael Marcoccio, president of the FOP's Lodge No. 3, didn't return telephone
messages seeking comment from the Phoenix.
The status quo is damaging, says Derek P.
Ellerman, executive director of the citizens group
Center for Police and Community (CPAC), since the presence of a small number of
tarnishes the way that many residents view the entire
department. "It's definitely in the interest of the
police department to have a system that ensures
accountability," he says.
Last week, in a response to a request by CPAC, Providence police released
statistical data on civilian complaints from 1996, and agreed to make public in
January more information for 1997, 1998, and 1999. Ellerman says the effort is
meant to end some of the secrecy and questions about the complaint process. (In
1996, the internal affairs bureau received 69 complaints that involved 92
officers, the vast majority with fewer than five years of experience.)
Serving as a liaison between police and the community on the hot button issues
represented by alleged misconduct could likely be a difficult role. But Lewis,
who learned about the importance of building community ties as part of the
first black family to move into East Boston's Maverick housing project,
welcomes the prospect of taking on the challenge. "I think very highly of the
police. I know they have a tough, tough job," he says. But the fact remains
that some "people don't want to go to the police, because they're afraid of the
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.
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