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.