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EXCLUSIVE: Number of Providence Police at Record Low

Monday, August 27, 2012

 

The Providence police force is at its lowest level in two decades, reflecting the toll of budget cuts made by the city and having a detrimental impact on law enforcement services, city sources and officials are telling GoLocalProv.

“It is my understanding that they are at [the] breaking point,” said Councilman Michael Correia.

As of last week, the number of sworn officers stood at 428. A year and a half ago it was 494.

‘Rank and file feel the strain’

Joe Rodio, chief legal counsel for the police union, warns the city does not have enough officers. “The rank and file feel the strain because there’s not enough officers on the street,” Rodio said. “We’re feeling the hit from the number of people on the job.”

The numbers of sworn staff peaked at just over 500 during the Dean Esserman era. But during the 1990s the department functioned with a smaller complement, generally hovering around 440 officers. That makes the current force level the lowest it has been in two decades.

“It’s fair to say the numbers are the numbers. The staffing is at the lowest it has been in years,” said Chief Hugh Clements. “I would agree we need to start beefing up our numbers again.”

The manpower issues are so widespread that the department is stuck in a Catch 22: attempts to build up numbers in one area only risk draining it in another. So the department has held back on promoting as many as senior officers as it would like because it doesn’t want to pull officers from the streets. It’s left detective positions unfilled for the same reason.

The most likely way out is going to be federal funding, according to Clements.

But there’s no definitive word on exactly when that will happen. In the meantime, sources point to several warning signs that Providence police already are stretched too thin:

■ Half of murder cases unsolved: As a result of the depleted detective force, just 39 percent of city murders between 2007 and the end of 2011 have led to an arrest and a conviction, according to a city source with direct knowledge of the situation. However, the official rate cited by the department is 55.6 percent, but that's arrests or arrest warrants, not convictions too. Nationwide, murder solve rates vary widely. Cities like Detroit solved 21 percent of its murders 2008, contrasted with 75 percent in Philadelphia, according to the Scripps Howard News Service.

■ Dwindling detectives: There’s no disputing that there are fewer detectives in the Providence Police Department. “We definitely have less detectives than we have had in a long period of time,” said Deputy Chief Thomas Oates. “It’s a trickle-down effect: when you promote from within you get less bodies at the bottom.” Officially, the department says there are 56 sworn detectives. But there are only about 20 people actually doing detective work in today’s department, half as many as there once were—not counting people who are sworn detectives but may have been assigned to other work, according the city source, who said the size of the investigative division is the “worst it’s ever been.”

 ■ More than double the murders: In 2012, there have been more than double the murders there were by late August 2011: 13 compared with 5, a jump of 160 percent—and that’s not counting last weekend’s fatal shooting.

But Oates says it’s better to look at murder rates over several years. When that’s done, he says the rate is actually declining. For example, there were 37 total murders between 2008 and 2009, while there were 27 between 2010 and 2011. (For all of 2011 there were 12 murders.) Plus, in a separate interview, Clements emphasized that the overall violent crime rate is down by 10 percent compared with this time last year. However, some other individual crimes rates have also increased, such as sex offenses and aggravated assaults, albeit only by single digits, based on data provided by his office. (See below chart.)

■ Not enough senior officers: It’s not just patrolmen and detectives, the department also needs more senior officers. The city recently held a round of promotions tests for sergeants and lieutenants. But it can’t promote everyone who passed the test because that would further diminish the lower ranks. So there are five officers on the waiting list for promotion to sergeant and three people on the list for lieutenant, according to Clements.

■ Officers asked to do more with less: One measure of the workload in the department is calls for service. Data obtained by GoLocalProv shows that calls for service have declined, but not to the extent that manpower has. While manpower is down 13 percent, calls for service have decreased by 6 percent between 2011 and 2012 to date, meaning that officers are being asked to do more with less. One department source says that is adversely impacting public safety by resulting in longer wait times on non-emergency calls and reducing the number of officers on proactive street patrols.

Chief: Services have been affected

“We all know and we’re in agreement that we’re going to need an academy,” Clements said. (An academy would graduate between 30 to 40 new officers.) 

He said the department is awaiting federal approval to use a COPS grant to hire officers in excess of the current staffing level of 428. Asked when he expects to hear back, Clements responded: “I’m hoping that it’s going to be very soon.”

“We’re deploying an adequate number of officers daily for public safety,” Clements said. But, he added: “We’re reaching that point in time where we need more police officers to provide the level of service that we would like to.”

He said the department strategizes and prioritizes virtually every other day about where to deploy its limited resources. As a result of cuts, he said non-critical services have been eliminated or reduced: foot patrols have ended and vacant detective positions remain unfilled. But he said the department has not been forced to go as far as some others in the country that have done away with their night detectives entirely.

“The longer range services are being impacted but, no, I don’t agree that public safety is being impacted,” Clements said. 

Despite its smaller size, Clements noted that the department can muster up a strong street presence when needed, as was the case at the recent Dominican festival in the city. Clements credited the “outstanding” and “phenomenal” job of rank-and-file officers in reducing the violent crime rate by 10 percent—even at a time when their own numbers are down. “[Our] guys are out there hustling,” he said.

He also attributed the lower crime rate to more effective and efficient management of the department.

 Budget crisis took its toll

Just one year ago, the department faced the specter of an even smaller force as the new administration grappled with a budget crisis.

“There was the stark reality of 78 officers were going to be laid off,” Clements recalled in an interview. “The city was and remains in a very serious financial situation.”

That was back in late spring 2011. The force was already down to 468 officers, with 26 positions unfilled. A layoff of 78 officers would have dropped the force below 400 officers, putting the department in an “extremely difficult” situation, Clements said. The only way the city could have absorbed such a cut is by eliminating many of its specialized units—special victims, school resources, and the gun unit, according to Clements.

Instead, the union struck a deal with the city, instead agreeing to 30 to 40 retirements with an incentive. Over the past year, the city has reached that goal through a combination of retirements and the departure of officers for other reasons. But those 26 vacant positions were never unfilled, bringing the department to the low level of 428 that it is at today.

“Now we’re reaching some pretty low numbers,” Clements said.

The police union blames the situation on former police Chief Dean Esserman and former Mayor David Cicilline. “Cicilline and Esserman bankrupted the city Police Department,” said union President Taft Manzotti. “I think the current administration has had to do as much as they can with as little as that was left them.”

Councilman: ‘Can’t forsake public safety’

The situation has caught the attention of several city councilmen.

Correia told GoLocalProv that he was doing everything in his power as a councilman to keep community policing in the neighborhoods in his ward at current levels. So far, he said he does not believe that public safety has been undermined.

Next month, he said he would be introducing a resolution calling for a new recruitment drive for as many as 40 to 50 officers. Correia said he hopes the City Council’s Finance Committee, to which his resolution would be referred, would be able to find the necessary funds—perhaps from federal sources.

The city apparently is in a position now to beef up the number of firefighters it has. This past May, Mayor Angel Taveras announced a new fire academy which could result in the hiring of 35 to 50 more firefighters. But such a move is expected to result in a net savings for the city by cutting down on overtime, which runs from $3.1 million to $4.5 million annually. On balance, the city will save $1 million, according to a press release.

Councilman Luis Aponte said he is concerned about the level of resources that are available for the Police Department. He said he looks forward to having conversations this fall between the council, Clements, and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare about what resources the department does need in order to ensure the safety of the entire city and its citizens.

“In the realm of shrinking budgets and difficult economic times, public safety is not something you can forsake,” Aponte said.

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