Introduction

Equitable policing in Rhode Island has been a challenge for the last several decades. This study examines the tensions between communities of color and the police by way of examining empirical evidence and social demonstrations during the summer 2020 protests. This examination also documents the treatment of protestors in Rhode Island during the George Floyd protests. 

Background

As elsewhere across the country, George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the police led to protests across the state. These demonstrations highlighted concerns with policing in general, but more explicitly with policing in RI. On June 5, 2020, Providence saw one of its largest protests ever, when over 10,000 protestors peacefully marched to the State House in response to the murder of George Floyd. This came after demonstrations on June 2, 2020 where over 65 individuals were arrested in what former Governor Gina Raimondo classified as an “organized attack”.

Concerns about equitable policing in Rhode Island have remained an ongoing discussion for decades.  In 2001, a black high school English teacher, Bernard Flowers, was pulled over by Westerly police officers at gunpoint. The teacher described this encounter as a “firing squad” and stated later in a lawsuit that he felt “frozen”. Mr. Flowers had his vehicle searched as he was forced onto the ground. Then Chief of Police David Smith explained that he regretted the “inconvenience” to Mr. Flowers but claimed that the stop was justified since the officers were searching for two armed black men in the area. Flowers would later go on to sue the town of Westerly, although a federal district judge ultimately dismissed his complaint.  

That same year, the ACLU filed suit against the Providence Police Department for allegedly failing to collect traffic stops statistics. They would later be subject to a court order requiring independent monitoring to ensure compliance. In March of 2002, the ACLU of Rhode Island sued the Woonsocket Police Department for racially profiling a motorist for  “driving while black”. Instances of the discrimination were not limited to civilians. In January of 2001, Providence Police shot and killed a fellow black police officer while he was off-duty. Both officers were ultimately cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. 

On July 11, 2006, Carlos Tamup was pulled over for allegedly failing to use his turn signal when making a lane change. Despite having verified that Tamup’s license and registration for the van he was driving were valid, and that he did not have any criminal record, Officer Thomas Chabot of the Rhode Island State Police (RISP) ordered the 14 passengers he was carrying out of the vehicle. They were all asked to produce identification, which the ACLU categorized as racial profiling in direct violation of the Racial Profiling Prevention Act. As a result, the passengers were ultimately sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the threat that they would be shot if they attempted to run away

The relationship between law enforcement and the community in Rhode Island continued to erode throughout the later 2000’s and 2010’s. In May 2009, Ada Morales, a Providence resident, was detained at the adult correctional institute (ACI) in Rhode Island under suspicion of being an unlawful immigrant. It was later determined that law enforcement officials failed to verify her information in their own flawed database and assumed that, based on her race, she was subject to deportation when in reality she had been a U.S. citizen for several years. The ACLU of RI ultimately settled a lawsuit on Morales’ behalf.  On January 23, 2017, Simone Phoenix walked into the Providence Police Safety Complex to obtain an emergency application for alternative housing to escape abuse from her ex-husband. She was ultimately assaulted and later “maliciously” prosecuted according to a federal lawsuit that she later filed. In 2019,  Providence Police recruit, Michael Clark, indicated that he was the target of several racially disparaging remarks and hazing incidents. Clark was subjected to “retaliatory, punitive, discriminatory, threatening, demeaning and humiliating treatment” based on his race and in reference to a rap song he wrote describing the high number of Black men being killed by police. He was ultimately terminated from his job.  

Just before the murder of George Floyd, Providence, RI was coming to terms with a recent incident involving police brutality. On April 19, 2020, Rishod Gore, a black male, was severely beaten by Sgt. Joseph Hanley of the Providence Police Department. Gore was repeatedly kicked and Sgt. Hanley purportedly placed his knee on Gore’s neck in an attempt to subdue him. Hanley would later be convicted in district court, but has continued to call for a retrial outside of Providence County.

These anecdotal incidents highlight the tension between the police and communities of color in Rhode Island. However, to understand whether these issues are emblematic of more systemic bias against people of color, we examine traffic stop data which represent one of the most frequent interactions between the public and law enforcement. While data from traffic stops do not give an expansive view of police engagement in all instances, they do provide evidence of bias in traffic stops which is likely to be present in other types of engagement between police and people of color. A discussion of the data, which focuses on more diverse communities in RI, is presented  below.

Empirical Data Illustrating Tensions in Policing

This discussion draws on traffic data and studies for 2003, 2006, 2014, 2018, and 2019. Based on traffic stop analyses performed by Northeastern University in 2003, 2006, and 2014, as well as traffic stop data studies conducted by the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in 2018 and 2019, several departments in Rhode Island reported data that show that there is selective enforcement of traffic laws against communities of color in comparison to white motorists. This ultimately lends credence to the anecdotal evidence of the existence of racially motivated policing in RI.

Discretionary Searches

In all years in both the Northeastern and Central Connecticut State University Studies, there is extensive evidence to indicate that non-white motorists are significantly more likely to be searched than white motorists in discretionary searches. Discretionary searches are searches where an officer requests to search (and ultimately searches) a vehicle without there having been an arrest. Looking at the Northeastern University studies, and focusing on ten police departments that completed more than 2,000 traffic stops and/or 100 discretionary searches, nine have seen an increase in racial disparity since the original 2003 study. The graph below (Figure 1) illustrates the ratio of non-white to white motorists that were subjected to discretionary searches and shows that in all departments, except for Johnston, RI, there was generally an increase in the number of biased searches over the years of the studies. In the graph below, where the ratio is higher than “1”, a greater number of non-white motorists were subject to discretionary searches than were white motorists. 

Shockingly, in almost all of the departments across the state with adequate data for all three studies, motorists of color were disproportionately searched despite the fact that white motorists, on average, were found with contraband at higher rates than non-white motorists. The disparity is displayed below in Figure 2. In the graph below, where the ratio is higher than “1”, more non-white motorists were subject to discretionary searches than are white motorists. 

Solar Visibility Analysis – CCSU studies

The primary focus of the CCSU studies (both 2018 and 2019) was on “solar visibility analysis”. Put simply, the researchers compared the likelihood of a motorist being stopped during the day (where police can presumably discern the race or ethnicity of a driver) across various races, withg traffic stops at night as a counterfactual where officers will presumably be less likely to determine the racial makeup of the driver. The researchers examined the traffic stop data of several police departments, but we focus here on five departments: North Providence, Smithfield, South Kingstown, Warwick, and Westerly. These five departments offer the most comprehensive and significant data within the study that best illustrate the disparity.

The data from all departments indicated a significant disparity in the rate that Black motorists were stopped during the day as opposed to the night. For example, in North Providence, the odds a Black motorist was pulled over in the night was slightly more than one third, but those odds grew to more than half during the day. In Smithfield, the odds a Black motorist was pulled over in the day was about  twice as likely as the odds they were pulled over at night.  In South Kingstown, the odds of a Black motorist being pulled over at night was approximately 6%, but those doubled to more than 14%  during the day. In both Warwick and Westerly, the odds a Black motorist was pulled over in the day was just under twice the odds they were pulled over at night. This data provides clear evidence of racial profiling in police stops.

Racial Bias in Traffic Citations and Searches

The CCSU studies found that there were many adverse impacts on motorists of color across several Rhode Island police departments. For example, in North Providence, Black and Hispanic drivers were less likely to receive a warning and more likely to be arrested or receive a citation as seen in Figure 3 below. The data in Westerly, as seen in Figure 4 below, shows that while it was more likely for a White motorist to be stopped for a speeding violation, they were less likely to be stopped than a Black or Hispanic motorist for “other traffic violations”, “equipment/inspection”, and “registration violations”. These violations are relatively minor and give rise to the inference that they were pretextual stops. In other words, the police could use these minor stops as the basis to stop and interrogate a driver for reasons other than the equipment violation itself.

 In Smithfield, and as shown in Figure 5, Hispanic drivers were more likely to receive a warning and Black motorists were more likely to be arrested as a result of a stop. In the same department, as highlighted in Figure 6, it was more likely that a Black motorist was to be stopped for a speeding violation, “equipment”, “other traffic violation”, or “registration violations”. In South Kingstown, motorists of color were more likely to be searched than white motorists but there was a lower chance that contraband was found on these drivers as illustrated in Figure 7. In Warwick, non-white motorists were less likely to be given citations and more likely to be arrested as seen in Figure 8. In Westerly, non-white motorists were significantly more likely to be searched than white motorists  as seen in Figure 9. 

In summation, the evidence suggests that there is unequivocal empirical support for the perspective that motorists of color are more likely to be detained, searched, and pulled over for pretextual stops across the police departments discussed above. Further, the dispositions of these stops suggest that non-white motorists were more likely to face more severe consequences such as arrest. It also suggests that Black motorists faced even higher levels of racial discrimination than Hispanic motorists.

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Response of Traffic Stop Analysis by South Kingstown Law Enforcement

The studies above are not the only illustrations of  racial tensions in policing in Rhode Island. A 2014 study released by Northeastern University in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island also concluded that the likelihood of a Black or Hispanic driver being searched was significantly higher than for a White driver. In the study, South Kingstown had the highest number of arrests of Black drivers, making their arrests about 9 times higher than other groups, based on the town’s resident population. The traffic stop data and the arrest rates of Black drivers in South Kingstown show a clear correlation between race and the likelihood of being stopped by police, underscoring the tensions that exist between the police department and people of color.

Although law enforcement agencies did not, for the most part, publicly comment on the findings of the various studies, two Chiefs of police of South Kingston had very different responses. Then Chief of Police, Vincent A. Vespia Jr, in response to the conclusion and methodology of the 2014 study  stated that he “took exception to the methodology that was used to make that determination. What she said to me was that the only purpose of the [ACLU] was to bring awareness to the ‘possibility’ of racial disparity of several Rhode Island municipalities, including South Kingstown”. In response to the finding that Black people are arrested more frequently than White people, Vespia stated the following: “The assumption that came out of the arrests is that all the arrests of people of color came out of the group of 669 residents of color of South Kingstown. That can’t be further from the truth. It didn’t take into account people who have multiple arrests; it didn’t take into account people who traveled through South Kingstown; it didn’t take into account the number of people of color who are associated with the University of Rhode Island.” Significantly, it should be noted that the same considerations would apply to all groups – that is the number of arrests of White motorists and Hispanic motorists would also presumably include the factors that Vespia mentions.

Chief of Police, Joel J. Ewing-Chow, who held office when the CCSU released its  traffic stop data study in 2021, after the George Floyd protests, expressed an openness to addressing the report’s recommendations. In a letter to the project manager, Ken Barone, Ewing-Chow highlighted the policies of South Kingstown as it relates to prohibiting racial bias in policing. He indicated that the department had not received any reports from citizens regarding racial bias in the department. In response to the study’s recommendation that the department monitor its traffic enforcement policies within the high enforcement patrol areas (North East, Town East, and Town West) in order to evaluate the extent to which they may have a disproportionate effect on Black drivers, Chief Ewing-Chow stated: “The South Kingstown Police Department will monitor traffic stop data on a monthly basis and ensure that we are abiding by the recommendations of this analysis and following departmental policy.”

Police Response after the Murder of George Floyd and the Twenty for 2020 Campaign

Following the murder of George Floyd, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association (RIPCA) launched on June 25, 2020, the document The Twenty for 2020: Twenty Promises to all Rhode Islanders from their Police Departments, which promised new reform or policies to ensure professional policing. These include acknowledging issues of police brutality, the introduction of body and cruiser cameras, defending professional policing, and reemphasizing officer wellness.  The document also denounced the actions of the officers involved in George Floyd’s murder and acknowledged that the criminal justice system required reform to make it fair to people of color. To support this goal, RIPCA advised all RI police departments to research the full-time use of cameras, promoting professional policing, arguing against the defunding of the police movement, and focusing on mental health issues in policing. All twenty goals that RIPCA committed to can be found here.

There were also responses from individual police departments seeking to distance themselves from the excessive violence used against George Floyd and in support of protests against police brutality. The Westerly Police Department, for example, in a facebook post declared[LP2] : “Many in town are hurt, frustrated and just simply fed up. We are listening, we hear you and we are with you.” They posted this photo:

Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey, also issued his own statement of condemnation, stating: “We have seen the same videos that the public has and as soon as I watched it, I had a feeling this was going to spark outrage. It’s clear these officers were not acting within their training. It was disturbing and difficult to watch, and right away several of the officers said they were hearing comments from the public.” He also instructed his officers to work alongside protests in hopes of mollifying existing tensions. There were no reported arrests in Westerly, RI during the George Floyd protests.

While there was no official response from the Warwick Police Department on the killing of George Floyd, on June 8, 2020, The Warwick Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement which, while condemning police action that led to his death, was directed at defending the integrity of the police, especially against calls to defund police departments, insisting that police officers, in general, were “under attack”. Warwick itself had several demonstrations – none that resulted in any arrests. In one event, organizer Ronald Martinez made clear that no forms of attacks against law enforcement would be tolerated and that the demonstration was to raise awareness to the issue of police violence and an underlying systemic problem involving race in America. During these demonstrations, a South Kingstown police officer was captured in a photo posted on Twitter, kneeling in solidarity with other protestors.

Twenty for 2020 Campaign

Despite RIPCA’s “Twenty for 2020” promises, and the support for protests by some departments and officers, tensions between law enforcement and communities of color continued. A month after the document was launched, on July 24, 2020, Najeli Rodriguez, a woman of color, was arrested  for disorderly conduct for protesting in the street  as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, although white demonstrators who were doing the same were not arrested. While protesting against evictions at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic on August 14, 2020, Damon Drury was pushed from behind by a police officer into another police officer and was slammed to the ground by five police officers. Nika Salazar, while attempting to prevent Drury from being injured, was also arrested and brutalized in the altercation. On September 23, 2020, Providence Police and Rhode Island State Police tear gassed a group protesting the death of Breonna Taylor, chased them with pepper spray, forcing them to climb over a roughly six foot tall chain linked fence. Just five days after this incident, another group of protestors in support of Breonna Taylor were pepper sprayed by the same police officer from the previous incident. Police also instructed Will James (a reporter for UpriseRI) to stop recording the incident and to leave the scene. On October 18, 2020, Jhamal Gonsalves was critically injured when two Providence Police officers driving separate vehicles cornered him, which led to   him crashing into a stop sign. As a result he went  into a coma and suffered severe neurological trauma. Though the officers were not charged, his family ultimately sued. As of August 2022, the lawsuit was ongoing. On November 7, 2020 Providence Police beat Germaine Bruce while he was assisting his friend with a defective car battery. The officers told Germaine to get onto the sidewalk after informing him that the car would be towed since it failed to start. Despite complying to their request, officers beat, choked, and threatened to taser him. One of the most recent incidents involved a Providence patrolman Jeann Lugo, a candidate for State Senate, who assaulted his opponent, Jennifer Rourke–who is Black–at an abortion rally on June 25, 2022.

These accounts do not represent all instances of heavy-handed policing since the 2020 protests. That these have continued since 2020, coupled with the evidence of the traffic stop reports and the clear bias against Black people, in particular, speak to a systemic problem with policing that Rhode Island needs to confront. This is likely to be an ongoing, long-term project, requiring more than public expressions of support.