Audit of Providence PD recommends diverting non-criminal calls elsewhere

Jessica Wong

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A private firm is recommending major overhauls to the way Providence runs its police and fire departments, following a more than six-month audit process focused on reforming police, combating systemic racism and finding budgetary savings. The audit was announced last September after a summer of unrest […]

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A private firm is recommending major overhauls to the way Providence runs its police and fire departments, following a more than six-month audit process focused on reforming police, combating systemic racism and finding budgetary savings.

The audit was announced last September after a summer of unrest and demands from some residents that the Providence Police Department be defunded. Mayor Jorge Elorza — who has been careful not to use the term “defund” — said the goal of the audit was to “reorient” the city’s public safety functions.

The first sentence of the 196-page audit, conducted by the PFM Center for Justice & Safety Finance and released Tuesday, references the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring and the movement for police reform it sparked.

The audit’s authors write that their approach “rejects the amount of spending allocated to public safety as an antiquated measurement of success, and instead recognizes that a prevention-first approach may be a better investment to create a healthier, safer, and more just Providence.”

They essentially argue that if the city wants to be a safer place, funneling more money into the Police Department is not the way to do it. If followed, the report’s recommendations would result in fewer Providence police officers over time — by attrition, not through layoffs.

“It’s not the case that more officers means less crime,” Elorza said in a briefing with reporters. “We need to be strategic in how we deploy our resources.”

Some of the report’s recommendations are likely to generate pushback from the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing Providence officers, which has argued the city needs more not fewer officers on the streets. (Providence is set to hire 50 new officers this year, though more than 100 in the department are currently eligible for retirement.)

Some gears have already been put into motion to reform the department. The city is planning to hire a new police major who will focus on community relations and diversion services. And the budget approved last week by the City Council allocates funding to study the best way to divert certain calls away from police. Plus, the most recent two academies brought more officers of color and women into the department, which is predominantly made up of white men.

“No one thing is the solution,” Elorza said. “The magic is in how it all comes together.”

The report was funded directly by a private donor that Elorza has refused to disclose publicly. The private funding allowed the city to bypass a competitive bidding process that would typically be required for this type of work if funded by taxpayers.

Rethinking what police officers do

The PFM report partly rejects the current community policing model in Providence, where police officers have become a “catch-all for non-criminal issues” due to the “ability and willingness to respond to all types of events,” according to the report.

PFM analyzed five years worth of calls to the police and fire departments and the budgets for both agencies, along with the public safety department as a whole.

The authors said they found a significant amount of inaccurate or incomplete data in both the police and fire departments, which made it difficult to do the analysis. About 24% of the arrests from 2019, for example, had no offense listed and are categorized as “null” in the data.

The police use of force data was also unable to be analyzed because the system “did not accurately count data,” according to the report, “a result of personnel errors and system limitations/errors.” The report also says mental health incidents (MHIs) are not accurately tracked, and likely undercounted.

“We haven’t collected consistently over the last 20 years all kinds of data,” Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré acknowledged.

Paré said one issue is that police who have used force — which must be reported — haven’t always filled out the race and ethnicity of people involved. “We’re in the process of fixing that,” he said.

Nonetheless, PFM made a number of findings, including that a large number of police hours are spent on non-emergency or non-criminal matters, such as responding to building alarms (mostly false alarms), fender-benders, mental health incidents and calls for people with substance abuse or who are experiencing homelessness.

Some of those calls would be better served by social service agencies, PFM said in its recommendations. The report’s authors suggested the city create an Office of Neighborhood Services, which could serve as the umbrella agency and liaison between different city departments and organizations that could respond to certain calls rather than police or firefighters.

The report also said more non-emergency matters should be pushed to the city’s existing online reporting system. Residents can already use that to file reports for certain crimes, such as a package theft or a stolen credit card number, that don’t necessarily require a police officer to respond in-person.

In seeking to show how the Police Department can save money, the report quantified how many officers would be freed up if they weren’t needed for certain calls. More than 10,000 non-emergency building alarms, for example, took up the equivalent of 1.2 full-time officers’ time in 2019. (The report notes a large number of those false alarms come from city buildings and schools, which the city should remedy.)

Officers spent more than 1,300 hours in 2019 responding to a “person annoyed,” according to the report. Another 1,800 hours were spent responding to complaints of loud music or parties, while 1,500 hours of sworn officers’ time were spent responding to complaints of illegal parking, despite the fact that the city employs 22 civilians in parking enforcement.

Fewer than 4% of calls that Providence police responded to in 2019 were for so-called “part 1” crimes as defined by the FBI, which include serious crimes such as murders, aggravated assault (including shootings and stabbings), robbery, burglary, sex offenses and arson.

The logistics of diverting certain calls away from police are likely to be complicated and take a long time to implement, the report’s authors acknowledge. As it stands, workers from the Providence Center and Family Service of Rhode Island already respond to certain calls, but they do so alongside officers.

Decoupling those services could take years.

“We’ve had social workers riding in the patrol cars for a decade or longer,” Paré said, adding that the practice already helps prevent arrests when a person can be brought to treatment instead.

“I think we want to take that further,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to pull out of police response immediately.”

Some of the other diversion recommendations would require changes to the law. As it stands, for example, police are obligated to respond in person to car accidents on public roadways, even if it’s a fender-bender with no injuries. (Similar minor accidents on private property can be reported via the online system.)

“We’re sort of like a service for the insurance companies,” Elorza said. “Do we really need to deploy trained police officers to do this sort of work?”

Michael Imondi, the union president for the FOP Lodge #3, said Providence officers agree with diverting some non-criminal calls, but not with decreasing the manpower of the department.

“There’s always going to be a need for a full police force in the city of Providence,” Imondi said Tuesday. “I would advocate that we keep the manning levels at what we are now or higher. It makes for a safer community.”

He said fewer officers on the street in Providence could mean more violence.

“The defund the police movement doesn’t work,” Imondi said. “You need police officers. You need well-trained officers.”

The report makes other recommendations for how the city could invest in certain areas that could prevent some calls to 911 in the first place, such as universal pre-K, workforce training, supportive housing, improvements in “historically underinvested neighborhoods,” and social support services.

“I love the recommendations,” Elorza said. “It takes a whole-of-government approach so we can be proactive in preventing crime.”

A fire department focused on health

From 2015 to 2019, more than 97% of the calls to the Providence Fire Department were for something other than a fire, according to PFM’s audit.

Most of those are emergency medical (EMS) calls, where Providence firefighters respond in ambulances — known as rescues — that can provide basic or advanced life support. The average rescue in the city had 15 runs a day in 2019, according to the report.

Structure fires have also decreased due to improved building codes, sprinkler technology and fire prevent education.

It begs the question, the report’s authors write: is this a Fire Department that provides EMS services, or an EMS department that also fights fires?

PFM recommends making it the latter, with a shift toward the medical side of the department and health prevention strategies that have already started to be used in Providence, such as the Mobile Integrated Health program that partners with the Providence Community Health Centers.

Like the Police Department, significant changes to how the Fire Department is staffed would need to be negotiated with the union. But PFM suggests: “Providence could consider full-civilianization of EMS by reducing the number of firefighters to only staff fire suppression services.”

“It’s destined to be a shelf document,” said Derek Silva, president of the Providence Firefighters union. “I guess they’re taking issue with our name?”

Silva said the department is already set up to respond primarily to medical calls, which is what they do.

“Most days I go to work I’m going on medical calls, and once in a while I have a fire,” Silva said. “Why would I want to give away a dual-role employee to trade for an employee who only has one function?”

Race and diversity

As the country grapples with systemic racism in policing, the report suggests changes to the city’s promotional and seniority rules — which would need to be negotiated with the union — could help diversify the ranks and the command staff.

In 2019, the Providence police force comprised 90% men and 68% white. By comparison, the majority of residents in the capital city are people of color, and there are slightly more women than men living in the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nearly half of the women in the department were recruited in the most recent police academy classes, which was also more racially diverse than previous classes. The police command staff remains overwhelmingly made up of white men.

The report recommends the city change the process of promoting officers to sergeant and lieutenant by shifting from a mostly exam-based system to a criteria-based one. The changed approach would focus on a “diversity of experiences, knowledge, skills, and abilities,” according to the report.

“Change in police culture is dependent on recruiting, training and very importantly promotion of personnel,” PFM writes.

The city is currently negotiating this matter with the union, Imondi said.

This story will be updated.

Steph Machado ([email protected]) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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