Reporter: Force Under Fire

The shooting of an unarmed teenager in Missouri has sparked a national conversation about the use of excessive force by police.

Elmwood Avenue rarely sleeps, but the sharp cry of pain was enough to rouse John Prince’s curiosity. Outside, Prince saw a man in handcuffs as undercover Providence police officers prepared to transport him. In the heavily policed neighborhoods of South Providence, an arrest was hardly remarkable.

But what Prince saw next disturbed him. A community organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), Prince took out his cell phone to videotape police detaining two women who had happened by, and searching them with what Prince described as less-than-professional zeal:
“He’s all in the ladies’ waistbands. There was no female officer,” Prince says. “When they asked the women to pull their shirts up and shake their boobs, that let me know that they were taking their jobs beyond the call of duty.”

The officers then turned their attention to Prince. They wanted to know his name and why he was recording them. Prince, feeling secure within the borders of his property and the United States Constitution, declined to answer. The officers identified themselves as “Obama” and “John Doe.” One was dispatched to retrieve the phone, Prince says. After a tussle in the hallway of Prince’s home, the officers took the phone, deleted the video and threw it in the bushes.

The officers departed; the women were not arrested. Prince filed a complaint with the Providence police department’s internal affairs, which was still pending in early November.
“Our officers refute that,” says Providence’s Commissioner of Public Safety Steven M. Pare. “They said that while they were conducting a narcotics investigation with plainclothes officers, Mr. Prince injected himself and became boisterous. They dispute the allegations, and like any other dispute, there is a process to adjudicate that.”

On the same September day Prince skirmished with police, demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, tried to shut down the interstate to protest the shooting death of Michael Brown. On August 9, Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the unarmed teenager, after directing Brown to stop jaywalking.

The incident sparked civil unrest in the St. Louis suburbs. Images of tear-gassed news crews and stone-faced police in full military combat gear also touched off a national conversation about excessive force, the wisdom of off-loading military-grade weaponry to local law enforcement and the often-fraught relationship between largely white police forces and minority citizens — but surely not a consensus.

“It’s easy to vilify police officers,” says Richmond Police Chief Elwood Johnson Jr., president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association. “Every year, we stop thousands of people and few lead to complaints or problems. The amount of training we have invested in cultural diversity and fair and impartial policing — we have taken great strides in improving and making [our responses] more uniform.”

Rhode Island protests in solidarity were peaceful, but many of those who marched to the Providence Public Safety Complex saw no reason to believe that they were any safer.

“A lot of places are like Ferguson,” says DARE Executive Director Fred Ordoñez. “We have the makings of a Michael Brown incident here. We have a police force in which the racial makeup doesn’t match their constituency and we have policies that are missing. Most police departments have a culture of fear and war against the community they are supposed to be serving and act accordingly. How do you change that mentality?”

The shocking events in Ferguson do little to distinguish whether these incidents are isolated or reflect the most egregious examples of a systemic problem.

“There really aren’t very good numbers,” says Tim Lynch, who runs the Cato Institute’s Police Misconduct Reporting Project. “The fundamental problem, statistically, is policing is heavily decentralized. We have 18,000 police departments around the country with different transparency policies and disciplinary procedures. The records are often secret. It’s very hard to assess.”

Most agree that a small percentage of officers are responsible for the majority of misconduct; the use of force in police encounters is rare. In Providence, for example, out of 350,636 dispatches from 2011 to 2013, officers discharged their firearms seven times and used a Taser fifteen times. According to a 2000 United States Department of Justice report, some older studies suggest that when force is used, it escalates into excessive force about a third of the time.

“Any use of force — it doesn’t look pretty,” Pare says. “It is our last resort.”

But excessive force is rarely punished, says Howard Friedman, a Boston lawyer and a member of the National Police Accountability Project. The law presents a high bar, prosecutors are reluctant to file charges against their criminal justice partners, and “juries come in expecting to believe the police did nothing wrong,” he says. “These cases are hard, and even when an officer is convicted, the sentences tend to be light.” Civil lawsuits are more successful, Friedman says, but even when a municipality settles with a victim for millions, it rarely leads to systemic reforms.

In Rhode Island, efforts to address misconduct have often widened the gap between law enforcement and the minority community. Racial profiling in policing was outlawed by the General Assembly in 2000. But four sets of traffic-stop data collected and analyzed between 2003 and 2012 have shown that racial minorities are much more likely to be stopped and searched by police, even though white drivers are more likely to be found carrying contraband.

“Fifteen years ago, they told us that our complaints were just anecdotes,” says Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. “So we gathered some data, and the data showed racial profiling pretty convincingly. Then, they shrugged off the data as meaningless.”

For seven years, minority and civil rights organizations have been trying to move the Comprehensive Racial Profiling Prevention Act into law, mostly against the headwinds of law enforcement.

In Providence, city officials riled the minority community with an effort to vacate a 1973 federal consent agreement that established a civilian complaint procedure. The Coalition of Black Leadership had sued the city, alleging that the Providence police department allowed misconduct to flourish, unchecked. Three years ago, City Solicitor Jeffrey Padwa broached the idea of replacing the current complaint procedure, arguing that the process was inefficient and plagued by no-show complainants. The most recent five years of complaint data does not sustain the no-show argument, nonetheless, “we’re spending a lot of money and a lot of time and it’s not providing the results we want,” says Pare.

The police and civil rights groups had been meeting and were poised to go forward with a revised procedure, when the process stalled.

“Our last meeting was last fall and then nothing,” says Shannah Kurland, a civil rights lawyer. “My assumption is nobody in the city had the energy and motivation to deal with it before the election.”

If the numbers are missing or unpersuasive, pictures have gained credibility. In 1991, the police beating of Rodney King ushered in the video age of excessive force. Today, one can Google “police misconduct videos” and watch police Taser, punch, kick, shoot and kill citizens whose “crimes” and behavior do not appear to warrant those responses.

Pare says there has been some talk in Providence of outfitting officers with body cameras to create a record that can protect officers from false accusations and provide a check against aggressive and unprofessional policing. Meanwhile, some ACLU chapters and private entrepreneurs are developing apps that let cell phone users immediately upload a video to cloud storage, so that police cannot confiscate a phone and delete it.

When a platoon of citizen documentarians is looking to cast another YouTube episode of “Cops Caught in the Act,” that doesn’t say much about the state of police-community relations.

“They feel as though they aren’t accountable to anyone when they are out doing what they do,” says Prince. “But the police can’t police themselves.”

Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades