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Providence—The Most Bars, the Fewest DUIs

Thursday, August 11, 2011


The City of Providence may have more bars than all the surrounding communities combined, but when it comes to DUI arrests, the capital has the fewest of any of them.


Between 2008 and 2010, Providence made DUI arrests at an average annual rate of .22 per 1,000 residents—dead last behind the five surrounding communities, which had arrest rates ranging from a rate of .67 arrests in Pawtucket to 2.59 arrests for every 1,000 residents in East Providence.

“2008 to 2010 Providence was abominable,” said Gabrielle Abbate, the executive director of MADD Rhode Island.

Even in terms of absolute numbers, Providence almost came in at the bottom, with 122 DUI arrests over the three year period. Of the five other cities and towns examined, only Johnston, which has less than a fifth the population of Providence, had fewer arrests—a total of 102. (See below chart.)


In one year, 2009, Providence had as few as 19 DUI arrests while communities like North Providence and East Providence racked up 98 and 132, respectively.

One DUI expert tells GoLocalProv that the low arrest rate in Providence emboldens drunk drivers and undermines public safety. “There has to be a fear of arrest in a DUI program for it to be successful,” said North Providence Police Lt. Robert Wild, an instructor in standard field sobriety tests at the State Police academy. “If you don’t have a fear of arrest then people will drive drunk. ... I don’t think there is a fear of arrest in Providence.”

DUI death toll

The disparity in arrest rates is reflected in another statistic: between 2005 and 2009, Providence had the highest number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities among the six communities.

During those years, there were 18 deaths stemming from drunk driving in Providence, according to data provided to GoLocalProv by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The fatality rates were significantly lower in neighboring communities—North Providence had one death, East Providence had three. Of the others, Cranston had the most, at ten.


Police Chief: ‘You can’t focus on everything’

Asked why there had been so few arrests, Acting Police Chief Hugh Clements pointed to the decision to close down the Traffic Division in the Providence Police Department by Dean Esserman soon after he took over as chief in 2003. “There was a focus on violent crimes,” said Clements, who became acting chief when Esserman resigned in June. “There’s only so many resources. You can’t focus on everything.” (But Clements also says the city has recently since renewed its focus on DUIs.)

At its height, the Traffic Division had a complement of about 40 officers assigned to it—and most of the DUI arrests came out of their office. All that’s left today is a five-man unit, according to its commander, Sgt. Paul Zienowicz.

Providence also has not been as aggressive as other departments in certifying officers in administering DUI tests—critical to enforcement because only a DUI certified officer can administered a breathalyzer test to a suspected drunk driver.

Today, Providence has 52 DUI officers for a force of approximately 460. Compare a town like North Providence which has 42 DUI certified officers for a force of 65 sworn officers.

“I don’t think highway safety was prioritized,” Abbate said—referring to the eight years that Esserman ran the department.


In hindsight, Abbate says the decision to dismantle the Traffic Division was clearly a mistake. She said MADD had voiced its concerns to Esserman early on, but those warnings went unheeded. “We were very concerned. We shared that concern. I don’t think that concern was heard,” Abbate said.

Big city crimes overshadow DUIs

The violent crimes that confront Providence police can also be an understandable distraction from DUI enforcement, sources say. “Providence is Providence. It’s a big city. The surrounding communities can gear themselves up for the drunk drivers from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m.,” Wild said. “Providence—they’re dealing with the bars letting people out. … It’s like a cattle ranch. They let out—they’re all over the place.”

“We listen to their scanner sometimes. We can’t believe how busy they are,” said Johnston Police Capt. Daniel Parrillo. “It’s a whole different world.”

Processing a DUI arrest can be a tedious and time-consuming task. The arresting officer has to fill out about eight different forms—compared to just one report and a witness statement for other serious crimes, such as regular robberies, assaults, and stabbings.

For DUIs, the eight required documents include an arrest report, an observation report, an arrestee rights form, a checklist for the breathalyzer, a test results letter to the suspect, and a court summons. From start to finish, the whole process of making a DUI arrest can take anywhere from two to six hours.


That’s precious time an officer cannot afford, especially when some overnight shifts in city districts are down to a handful of officers, one Providence Police Department source tells GoLocalProv. Faced with stabbings, shootings, and other violent crimes, sometimes officers have to focus their time and energy away from DUI arrests, the source said.

The source said the low number of DUI arrests has made Providence a “laughingstock” among officers who deal with traffic enforcement in other communities. The source always has the same response to those taunts. “I always go back to, ‘How many stabbings did you do last week?’ I did three,” the source said.

Acting chief promises renewed focus

While the arrest rates may be extremely low, Providence is turning a corner in its enforcement of DUIs, Clements told GoLocalProv.

“For the record we absolutely are committed to arresting drunk drivers in the City of Providence and I think our numbers will dictate that in the last fiscal year,” Clements said. “But you’re absolutely right. In prior years we were woefully low in the state.”

He added: “We’re going to have to put a renewed focus on DUI enforcement.”


Already, he said Providence is stepping up enforcement efforts. He said the department is certifying more DUI officers and on track to make more DUI arrests in 2011 than it has in the past. Providence also received a federal grant last October which funds special DUI patrols. Now, the department has at least two officers out on those patrols on weekend nights, according to Clements.

Another indicator that Providence will be paying more attention to DUIs: the new Public Safety Commissioner, Steven Pare, also happens to be the chair of the board for MADD Rhode Island. (Pare, pictured right, was unavailable to comment for this article.)

While Providence will be investing more in DUI enforcement, Clements said it will continue the crackdown on violent crimes that begun in the Esserman era. The question is how the department can maintain the successes it claims on reducing violent crimes and increase DUI enforcement all the while dealing with an estimated reduction of its manpower by about 30 officers this year.

Clements said it can—and is being—done. “It’s always that balance or that focus on trying to maintain that balance in all the issues that we deal with in an urban community,” Clements said.

Abbate said she has confidence in the new leadership of the department. “It’s reassuring to know there’s new leadership there. There’s new passion. There’s new energy,” Abbate said. “We have high hopes.”

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“There was a focus on violent crimes,” said Clements, who became acting chief when Esserman resigned in June. “There’s only so many resources. You can’t focus on everything.”

the ppd spends way too much time giving out traffic violation tickets. but who cares about violent crime and dui's when you can write up $85 tickets all day for frivoulous traffic violations.

in the short term it raises alot of money for the city, in the long term, its just one more reason to stay away...its also devastating to residents that have no money in the first place.....

try doing an analysis of parking tickets and other unnecesary traffic violation tickets issued by the ppd. ubstructing traffic, no turn on red, right turn only........

Comment #1 by john paycheck on 2011 08 11

John - don't be bitter because you got a ticket. Trust me, Prov officers hate filling out tickets as much as tying themselves up for 3-4 hrs on ONE DUI arrest. They're REAL cops... jumping fences, getting shot and shot at, getting spit on, kicked in the groin, threatened daily about being sued and complaints against them, stabbed, run over and cursed at... you "normal" people have no f'ing clue about the "other" world that exists around you that Prov cops deal with on a daily basis to make sure "they" don't invade you're comfy little life. No one likes cops because they tell people what you can't do BREAKING THE LAW. They do they job YOU don't want to do. , yet when you get mugged or assaulted, I'm sure you won't be complaining. The media and general public treats them like glorified garbage men. Well next time you have your house broken into or your car stolen, call a garbage man.

Comment #2 by Jason Andrew on 2011 08 11

John..w/all due respect..you are way off base...VIOLENT CRIMES IS THE FOCUS..GANGS, GUNS, crimes against elderly, children, domestic abuse...according to you, PPD should be just watching the roads like OD's troopers w/pressed slacks, shined boots, nice hats...those aren't cops, they are road watchers
No fan of dean, certainly not one of Clements but they can only focus on the important

Comment #3 by Buc Kner on 2011 08 11

Providence is also a city... where little local watering holes are within walking distance of a load of homes and also has a bus and cab system.

Also.... you have to have some probable cause to stop a car and if someone is driving a few blocks at low speed, stopping at stop lights there is no reason to stop them.

DUI is mostly obvious out on the highway or on suburban streets where you have to drive for miles on end to get to and from wherever you are going.

Comment #4 by Caroline Evans on 2011 08 11

There is something kind of funky with the whole concern too..... you have a city of 178,000+ people and 18 of them end up dead in DUI accidents... which is as close to a rate of zero as one can imagine... and it is also shaky to have a public official on the board of a private non-profit that is engaged in political activity.... and kind of isn't available for comment.

Seems like it borders on some sort of conflict of interest when a public official seems to be using a private non-profit agency to maneuver around to "get his way" in internal city politics.

Let us round up the population of Providence to 180,000 to simplify the math (and justified as we can be certain there are some good supply of illegals living there uncounted).

Let us realizee realize the 18 out of 180,000 is a percentage of a one one hundredth of one percent death rate.

For all practical purposes that is a death rate so close to zero that it is crazy to think that it would be the more than a tiny, tiny source of public outrage.

We really have got to understand that there is a real problem with non-profit organizations who have missions that are basically wholly fulfilled end up at loose ends and don't know when to just wind it up and call it a day.

Often enough there is paid staff, or outside contractors who earn money providing services, who need to justify their jobs/income flow... and also volunteers whose personal social status is tied up in the organization... and so the organization scrabbles for some excuse to exist even when it has almost zero to do.

We can see the MADD has wholly accomplished its purpose since DUI deaths are as close to zero as could ever be imagined in the real world.

No small percentage of the injured are the DUIers themselves who self-punished with the death penalty or the crippled-for-life penalty.

I suggest that the other communities do not map onto Providence as the other communities are commuter towns (mostly) where you have to drive to do anything... and Providence is a city where loads of the "baked" have no need to use a car to get to and from wherever they got "baked".

Comment #5 by Caroline Evans on 2011 08 11

We also have to wonder how much of the motive behind this is a weird combo of "revenue enhancement" and "employment for members of govt employee unions".

We can almost hear the conversations behind closed doors of how many dollar can be raised by writing people up for DUI (no matter that there is virtually zero danger from DUI operators)... and imagine a broke city's polticians' ears perking up.

We can also imagine no one will factor in the cost of the extra cops.. or will talk about "free money from the feds" (as if that were not also paid for by RI taxpayers) to cover the expnese.

So we would see the usual perverse con-artist confusion-ism that gets things s screwed up in RI so often.

An illusory cash flow source is postulated.... only the income is considered... and any expense incurred to gain it is dismissed as paid-for-by-somebody-else.​. or is minimized in cooked up figures intended as a salesmanship tool.

Then ... after this illusory cash flow source is set up.... it just so happens.... that a lot of unionized employees need to be employed to do it or some connected outside contractor is hired at premium rates.

Surprisingly enough (not)... the cash flow source and its support team end up costing more than the cash flow... and you have a lot of unneeded paid employees (or outside contractors) pretty much cooking up excuses for how useful they are... by harassing the hell out of the innocent to get them to plead to offenses they did not commit.... or by simply faking up wholly specious figures to demonstrate how useful they are.

This whole scenario is so common in central RI politics and government they ought to sell a handbook on it so newbies don't waste their time trying to do anything sensible or productive as such efforts inevitably come to naught.

Comment #6 by Caroline Evans on 2011 08 11

"The violent crimes that confront Providence police can also be an understandable distraction from DUI enforcement..." How can that be? I thought Providence was the SAFEST it's been in 30 YEARS? That's what Mr. Cicillini told us! Seems to me they should have more than enough time to go after DUIs....unless someone has been LYING about the crime rate? ...things that make you say hhmmmmmmmm......

Just want to also point out that even though Providence has the most bars, it doesn't mean everyone going to them actually drives to get there. Neighborhood bars attract neighborhood people who walk to them. I'm not saying that this is why their DUI rate is lower, just that this fact should be taken into consideration.

Comment #7 by C B11 on 2011 08 11

why didnt Abbate raise this issue when Dean was Chief?? not a peep because she is becoming as jaded as the rest..her & Brendan..now OD..they like the TV spots & leave the work to PPD..if the RISP was so important, how come it has just slightly less than 1/3 of PPD officers? why? no crime anywhere else? start at statehouse?? of course not because senators, et al confirm OD!!.....AS FOR North Providence Police Lt. Robert Wild..??? A Lt in NP..whats that mean , you are the lead car in funerals or lead to Dunkin at shift change??? JOKES ..he couldnt cut it on PPD

Comment #8 by Buc Kner on 2011 08 11

I think Providence has way too many bars and clubs. Sure the business is good for the city but do they need the headaches? They may proclaim lower DUI numbers but we all know you can't trust their numbers. We know their crime numbers are skewed also. But they had a Mayor in denial and now the reality has set in - eight years of lies.

Providence is rotting from inside out. Crime is high and the booze is not helping.

Comment #9 by Lance Chappell on 2011 08 11

i have nothing but respect for virtually all of the ppd. they operate in a world that is very different then what most people live in. the human life is very cheap to many of the people they deal with.

that being said i have had more then one totally frivulous, stupid traffic violation tickets. i think the police time with these totally frivulous efforts could be spent on doing what they do best.

Comment #10 by john paycheck on 2011 08 11

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