Despite calls for review, council approves police contract

Despite calls for review, council approves police contract

The Pawtucket City Council hears from residents last week on how they wanted a delay to a vote on a new police contract so it can get a broader community review.
National policing issues take center stage locally

PAWTUCKET – When Appleton Avenue resident Kevin Martins was pulled over in 2014 for having no inspection sticker, he says he tried and failed, despite having a bill of sale from the day before, to convince a Pawtucket police officer that he couldn’t have it inspected before it was registered.

After being told to “tell it to the judge,” said Martins, he tweeted at Mayor Donald Grebien, who was able to arrange for him to speak with someone in the Police Department. That officer, Martins told the City Council last week, had a list of every run-in he’d had with the police going back to when he was a 12-year-old arrested for stealing a Little Debbie’s snack near Payne Park. The officer, he said, explained that he wanted to know who he’s speaking with before he speaks with them.

Martins said the list of past infractions was explained to him as being part of an internal database that’s not public record, but he said its presence on the table immediately ended any chance of honest engagement with the officer over his complaint. Instead of presenting records that should have long since been expunged, he said, the officer should have described how he went to college, is part of community organizations, donates to Shea High School and donates his time to other causes.

Just like that “farce” of a meeting six years ago, the police contract on last week’s agenda was similarly a farce that goes far beyond what it should to protect police, said Martins. Like others at the virtual council meeting on June 24, he told members that a yes vote to immediately approve the contract instead of delaying it to allow a wider conversation on policing was the wrong move.

Others who spoke similarly stated that while the contract might have been considered standard business a few weeks ago, the world has changed since the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, and that world is calling for a deeper conversation on reallocating police resources and improving policing.

The council ended up voting 8-1 to approve the new three-year contract, with Councilor Meghan Kallman voting no. Other council members said the city will keep taking steps to improve policing, but they don’t see delaying a negotiated contract with the union as the appropriate means to that end.

Though Kallman pointed to the 40 or so people who testified last week as all calling for a delay in the vote, other members said they also heard from many others in the community that they supported passage of the contract.

Kallman said she sees a moment of national reckoning on police issues and how they intersect with racism.

“To acknowledge that openly is not, in my view, to lay the nation’s problems at the feet of the Pawtucket police, though it might feel that way,” she said. “Rather, it is to consider and honor the ways that people’s experience throughout the country resonates with people’s experience here in our community. George Floyd’s murder was chilling, and brought home people’s experiences of racism that have occurred in other situations.”

As a white person who represents many people of color, she said she acknowledges that she can never understand how this racism feels.

“It’s my job to listen. This is an opportunity for us – the Pawtucket lawmakers, community, and police force – to consider what public safety means here, and if and how we might do it differently,” she said.

She said she doesn’t feel comfortable passing a contract until the community has done the speaking and listening it needs to. The very clear input is that the community is ready to have the conversation.

Police officers are overworked, underpaid and overstressed, said Kallman, and are functionally handed everything the rest of society has decided it doesn’t want to deal with or fund, including mental illness, landlord/tenant issues, and disputes between parents and children. Some 90 percent of calls for service have nothing to do with anything violent.

“The idea is here just that many problems that the police are saddled with may be better handled by people with different skill sets,” she said.

The current arrangement of officers filling nearly every function in society doesn’t set anyone up to succeed, she said.

She noted that the three-year contract extension was approved by both police and the city administration back in February, making it “more than reasonable” to allow a postponement to have a third party and the community look at it with an eye toward determining if it is “problematic from a justice perspective.”

Residents demand delay

Callers to the June 24 meeting were overwhelmingly in favor of delaying the contract approval.

Alexis Schuette, a candidate for City Council, said rushing it through is the opposite of what the city needs during an “incredible time of turmoil” and a “new normal.” A broader conversation needs to be had about using resources most efficiently and effectively, she said.

Resident Ann Grant said that, similarly to when the city was considering new rules on affordable housing, this isn’t the time for a hasty decision. The public needs far more information on policing in Pawtucket, she said, and should be getting regular information and real data to evaluate the department’s effectiveness, for a genuine partnership with the community.

Douglas Taylor called for a defunding of police and stated that Black Lives Matter. He said his heart aches to see a city where services “wither on the vine” while more goes to police.

Eli Nixon said the city needs to go back to the drawing board on the contract, saying it’s absurd that the city is approving it without meeting the demands people are articulating and with no community advisory board in place to work with police.

Several residents said they’re not buying the previous assertion that the city needs to wait to hold a community summit on race until after COVID-19, saying there are creative ways to still hold such a forum. If the forum has to wait, then the contract should have to wait, said Erica Scialdone.

Janie Seguí Rodríguez, another council candidate, said community organizers’ demands have not been met. This is a time of reckoning and officials can’t ignore what’s happening in the world, she said. The race summit should happen, she said, and the city should go beyond acknowledging problems to finding real solutions. Imagine, she said, a city where police roles are reimagined in Pawtucket and a trained crisis response team is sent to deal with certain issues instead of police.

Marcel McVay, who said he has been part of countless cultural experiences in the city and is a huge advocate for Pawtucket, said it concerns him that transparency and an open process seem to be lacking here. He pointed to issues with school resource officers, particularly at Goff Middle School, saying having them in schools teaches students to fear the police.

Melissa DaRosa, another candidate for City Council, noted her own extensive experience in working for nonviolence in Pawtucket while also developing relationships with police in calling for a delay on the vote. She said many changes have been made, but more work still needs to be done to protect those who will be impacted most by this contract and the abuse of power by police. A review might show that small investments elsewhere in services might mean police have to go to fewer calls.

Lindsey Langenburg, an urban planner, noted the city’s own comprehensive plan and how it describes strained budgets and the challenge of meeting demands with limited resources. She listed all of the costs for such items as ammunition and police overtime and how much higher they were than other expenditures such as parks and recreation or school psychologists. Middle school textbooks, at $8,000, add up to a tiny fraction of the cost of a resource officer, she said.

Councilors agree on need, but not on process

Councilor Elena Vasquez said she stands in solidarity with protesters and has brought up many of their same concerns. She said she’s been assured by officials that those concerns will be met. She described planned collaborations with outside agencies and the planned hiring of a community liaison to work closely with the community and police, saying she plans to be vocal in efforts to monitor the department going forward and to combat systemic racism.

Councilor Albert Vitali Jr. said he expects open dialogue to continue and changes to be made to the way the department does business. Changes are clearly needed “sooner than later,” he said, and leaders need to sit down with the community as a whole to engage them in the process. Vitali said he believes the city can go down a path of righting the wrongs of the past without delaying the contract.

Councilor Michael Araujo agreed, saying he heard the community loud and clear and promising to continue to listen for better understanding. He too said he received a bunch of emails for and against delaying the vote. Araujo said he expects many changes to come by way of the federal and state governments, and also likes what he’s seeing on city plans for changes.

Councilor Mark Wildenhain said he doesn’t recall a community review of any other contract, saying it’s up to leaders to analyze and approve them and he’s concerned about setting a new precedent. He applauded Kallman for her input, but said that aside from “150 or so form letters” received asking for a delay, he also paid attention to others who gave their input on the contract.

Councilor John Barry III said he appreciates everyone who came out to air their concerns. He said the issue of the kind of racism displayed by Chauvin is not something that’s going to be settled by the examination of a contract hashed out over more than two years. He said improvement can happen with commitment and dialogue, but there will be no dramatic transformation with a delay of weeks or months.

Councilor Terry Mercer said he agreed with 85 percent of what Kallman said, but didn’t see how holding back the contract would lead to major change. The contract is not the mechanism to bring about the needed change, he said, particularly with so many issues related to police dictated by higher law. Everyone hopes for a better reality with more dialogue and better training, he said.

Council President David Moran said he agreed with Barry and Mercer, saying he believes the matter of creating a better police department can happen independently. The hiring of a liaison is the start, he said, but a lot more work still needs to be done.

Councilor Tim Rudd, who works as a police officer in Providence, thanked Chief Tina Goncalves for information on how the department works with social service agencies and education. In response to suggestions that money isn’t going to other needed items, he noted that more than half of the city’s budget goes to education.

Rudd said he doesn’t deny that racism exists locally, pointing to experiences in his own family, but said progress can be made without holding up the contract. He said everyone should speak during next year’s budget deliberations, when real change can be made.

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