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Providence Police Union—Hispanic Festivals Leading to ‘Anarchy’ on City Streets

Thursday, September 06, 2012

 

The Providence police union is warning that the violence that erupts every year on Broad Street after two key Hispanic festivals is spiraling out of control—needlessly putting their members and the public in harm’s way.

After a difficult round of contract negotiations, spurred by the city budget crisis, union officials said they’ve had enough.

“Now you turn around and you give a group of people—probably 80 percent of whom who don’t live in the city of Providence—free rein to have anarchy on a main thoroughfare in the city of Providence at the expense of the people who live here and pay taxes,” said Clarence Gough, the vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3. “Not to mention that you put those 50 police officers and everybody who was working in jeopardy—in harm’s way. There was no way that our officers could have defended themselves had the crap hit the fan.”

This year, the Dominican festival was held on August 12 and the Puerto Rican parade and festival followed August 26. The official events went off without incident.

It’s the melee that ensued afterwards on Broad Street that has union officials worried and outraged.

It’s allowed to happen every year—and it’s only getting worse, they say.

‘Wild West’ chaos on Broad Street

Between the two weekends there were more than a dozen violent incidents, including four shootings and three arrests involving a knife. In about hald a dozen cases, officers were either threatened or attacked. In all, there were at least 17 arrests.

After Puerto Rican festival, officers responded to a call to the CVS parking lot where suspects were throwing glass bottles at police. One man hanging out of a car shouted obscenities at a female officer and said he’d kill her. A teenager hurled a bottle at a police horse, laughed, and then did a dance for his friends. When officers rushed to the corner of Broad and Sumter streets to break up a fight among women, one of the assailants bit an officer’s finger—letting go only after the officer punched her several times in her mid-section.

“If you live in that neighborhood you’re basically being held hostage for those two weekends,” added Paul Romano, the union treasurer and a crime scene detective. “You are not coming out of the house. The kids aren’t—definitely not coming out of the house. You’re basically stuck.”

Riot fears

It takes about 50 officers working on overtime and callback just to contain—not control—the chaos that erupts on Broad Street after each festival, union officials said. And, they said the officers are outnumbered against as many two thousand people who pour into Broad Street—many of them armed and members of rival city gangs. Plus, officers are spread throughout the crowd, rather than grouped together, further diminishing their ability to act as a unified force.

“Two to one ratio—that doesn’t work out in your favor,” said Michael Imondi, a patrolman and the recording secretary for the FOP. “They’re just as equipped as we are in firearms.”

The raucous celebration reportedly draws a number of partygoers from outside of Providence and outside of the state, union officials said. Some of them bring trailers with motorcycles and ATVs, which they ride roughshod all over Broad Street with impunity—zipping past officers who are unable to chase after them on foot.

“It’s a Wild West,” Imondi said. 

“We’re handcuffed because if we did something, it would start a riot,” he added.

It doesn’t help that officers were stripped of much of their riot gear—including wooden riot batons and riot shields—under the administration of former Chief Dean Esserman, according to the union president, Taft Manzotti.

Instead, officers stand out as targets, union officials said. “We have reflective vests on so they see what they’re shooting better,” Gough said. (The vests are worn because the police are assigned to handle traffic on Broad Street.)

‘A death waiting to happen’

During both weekends, the chaos turned deadly, leaving two shooting victims in their wake. At about 5:30 late afternoon on August 26 two witnesses who were playing volleyball at a park on Dexter Street were almost struck by an ATV. When the driver was confronted, he reportedly said, “I’ll be back.” Minutes later he did return, brandishing a Glock handgun and squeezing off a round before taking off.

No one was injured, but hours later, an apparently innocent bystander—a 21-year-old Smithfield woman—was shot through the back when gunfire broke out between two gangs.

“Given the amount of shootings that were called in, the fact that none of our officers got shot is astounding,” Manzotti said. “One officer came up to me and told me that he had the bullets going by him because he was at the other end of the street.”

“It’s a stroke of luck that none of us were hurt,” Gough added. “Those guys—most of them—were in stationary posts without a vehicle. Even if they had a vehicle they wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere with a vehicle because of the amount of traffic, the amount of people there. It’s just—it’s a death waiting to happen.”

Union: Double standard on shootings

Union officials are blaming the city for allowing the post-festival violence to happen every year. “The public and our police officers are put in harm’s way every time we have one of these types of events,” the union says in a draft e-mail due to go out to FOP members. “Politicians in City Hall choose to ignore the potential dangers associated with these types events.”

And the union says the city is using a double standard when it comes to shootings. They pointed to a fatal shooting at the Monet Lounge early morning on August 26. Within 24 hours, the Board of Licenses held an emergency meeting and had the club shut down. Within days, the board held a second meeting and suspended the night club’s liquor license.

Yet every year, the board of licenses has signed off the festivals, the union says. (GoLocalProv obtained documents, confirming that entertainment licenses were issued for both festivals this year.)

Asked exactly what the city could do to stop the violence, union officials said the Police Department could shut down restaurants, night clubs, and other businesses on Broad Street after both festivals ended in the name of public safety—making the area less of an attractive destination for people who want to party late into the night. Manzotti also suggested that the city consider moving the festivals to another location, farther away from Broad Street.

Festival organizer speaks out on violence

One of the festival organizers, Quisqueya in Action, itself is very concerned about the violence, according to Marilyn Cepeda, the president of the Dominican organization. (Quisqueya means "Motherland.") 

“It saddens me when we have this,” Cepeda said. “Especially with the youth.”

The festival and parade that happen during the day, she said, are family-oriented, occur without incident, and are completely separate from what happens on Broad Street afterwards.

The violent aftermath is especially distressing to her, she said, because Quisqueya in Action aims to promote a positive message to youth through the themes it selects for each year. This year, the festival celebrated “trailblazers”—individuals and small organizations that make a difference in the community. In past years, the festival has urged civic participation and respect for the environment.

Quisqueya in Action also does more than just hold the festival and parade, Cepeda said. It runs a college prep program for high school students and sponsors an annual clean-up of Broad Street geared towards youth participation.

Cepeda said Quisqueya in Action urges peaceful celebration of Dominican Independence Day in newspaper flyers and radio and television public service announcements leading up to the event.

But after her first interview with GoLocalProv, she promised to do more next year. “I’m making a commitment to take more responsibility to initiate an open dialogue with the Police Department,” Cepeda said. “We need to be a little tougher with people on Broad Street.”

(The organization that puts on the Puerto Rican festival and parade did not respond to a request for comment.)

 Councilman calls for meeting

Councilman Luis Aponte told GoLocalProv that the city needs to be more proactive in dealing with the activities on Broad Street after the festivals. He said the answer lies in a meeting with city officials, the police chief and commissioner, festival organizers, and community organizers—rather than assigning blame to somebody.

“What is new is the level of violence that is now associated with it and I think that is what we need to focus on,” Aponte said. “We have to acknowledge what it is and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Aponte, the first and the longest serving Hispanic member of the city council, said he wants such a meeting to happen in the near future, so that the city has plenty of lead time in preparing for the festivals next summer.

Councilman Michael Correia shared Aponte’s concerns in a separate interview. “Hopefully we can sit down with everybody … get this rectified and have a safe environment,” he said.

Union: Cost of events is too much for taxpayers

It’s not just the violence that’s at issue for the union. It’s also the financial cost.

The total tab for both events came out to $62,657 in terms of overtime, callback pay, and details, according to figures provided by the Police Department. A chunk of that—$15,000 or more for police details—should be coming out of the pockets of festival organizers, but at least one of them, Quisqueya in Action, has already fallen behind on a payment plan it had struck with the city.

So far, the group is past due on detail payments owed for last year’s event and has yet to pay anything towards this year. Cepeda said Quisqueya in Action is not ignoring its debt and is doing the best it can to deal with it. She said they are waiting for sponsorship money to catch up on its payments. The group will also be holding fundraisers to cover the remaining balance.

Union officials question how a city that says it’s in a financial crisis—and is looking for savings everywhere in its budget—can afford the cost for the two events. Imondi said that during contract negotiations last year, when the city came asking for budget cuts, the union suggested eliminating the overtime and callback costs for the festivals.

In an interview, Gough expressed outrage that he and his fellow members were being asked to sacrifice benefits only to see the city spend so much on overtime and callback for the festivals. “When you’re reaching into my pocket you’re going to throw out $60,000 for four days?” he said.

But the cost can be measured in more than just dollars.

Amassing an estimated 53 officers on Broad Street for each of the festivals, drains manpower from other areas of the city, the union says.

“They’re pulling officers from all over the city to come here, as well as calling people who were off duty coming in early to put there as a presence. What’s that do for the rest of the city?” Imondi said. “That’s taking the resources away from the rest of the city and the citizens of Providence and it’s leaving those communities less safe to be around. So … it’s a domino effect. And it’s got to end somewhere before someone gets hurt.”

“Someone is hurt,” he quickly corrected himself.

Note: Members of the Police Department command staff were “unavailable to comment” for this story. Mayor Angel Taveras’ office refused to comment.

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