Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
There is no real civilian review mechanism in Providence. There is a Providence Human Relations Commission that is supposed to assist individuals with allegations of police misconduct to pursue their complaints, but it often merely serves as a screening office for the police department's Internal Affairs Bureau(IAB).17 Many community activists believe that the commission is biased in favor of officers, and that it does not really have the mandate or will to act as an external review agency.
When the commission receives a complaint it is logged, and the complainant fills out a form that is notarized.18 The complainant then speaks with commission staff, and if the commission deems the complaint credible it is passed to IAB. IAB investigators then interview the officer involved, and the sergeant in charge decides whether a hearing is warranted.
The hearing officer, a lieutenant or higher-ranking officer, is chosen by the police chief, and hearings are held at the courthouse. The accused officer, a Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) representative, the complainant (with an attorney, if desired), and witnesses are present, with a format similar to a trial. The officer, alleged victim and witnesses give their accounts and the hearing officer makes a guilty or not guilty finding. The chief reviews the investigation files and hearing officer's summary, and the chief decides whether he agrees with the hearing officer's finding. A letter should then be sent from the Providence police department to the complainant, advising him or her of the outcome.
A representative of the Human Relations Commission told Human Rights Watch that a legitimate complainant will pursue his or her complaint through any delays, and noted that if a complainant fails to appear at the hearing, the subject officer is found not guilty automatically. She stated that the commission receives some complaints referred by the police department, but some are sent directly to IAB and the commission is not advised. She did not have an estimate for the number of hearings held and did not know how, or if, IAB keeps track of allegations, substantiations, or repeat offenders on the force.19
The commission's representative repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that the Providence police force was not very abusive, and suggested investigating other nearby communities instead. She stated that the oversight "process" is worth it, even if Providence officers are not disciplined for misconduct.
In the absence of real civilian review, local advocates, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island and DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), have taken a very active role in assisting abuse victims and highlighting abuse trends. The ACLU, for example, logs each complaint it receivesand sends complainants an ACLU complaint form, and if in Providence, the completed complaint form also goes to the Human Relations Commission. They also provide an ACLU pamphlet, "Your rights and the police," explaining basic legal concerns. The pamphlet is in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Laotian, and Cambodian. When the complaint forms are returned, ACLU staff review them and decide which cases should be raised with the police chief. Despite this systematic, responsible, and informative method of reporting the most serious abuses to the police department, ACLU staff noted in1995 that they rarely received notification from any police officials about whether specific allegations against police officers were investigated or any action taken.20
DARE, which closely monitors allegations of police abuse, particularly against the African-American community, told Human Rights Watch that it receives about a complaint a day about the police, and that in 90 percent of cases referred to the police department they received no response.21 DARE contended, moreover, that complainants are intimidated or treated rudely when they attempt to file complaints at police stations.22
Community groups complain that the police department is excessively secretive.23 Indeed, activists have been attempting to obtain files concerning citizen complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions from the Providence police department for the past seventeen years.24 In an effort to obtain information about IAB procedures and activities, DARE and the ACLU filed a lawsuit in May 1995, two years after initially requesting files about investigations. The city solicitor claimed that civilian complaints, internal investigation files and disciplinary actionswere not public information.25 The solicitor contended that DARE was entitled only to internal hearing officer reports if the names of the complainant and officer were deleted. The ACLU argued that the city's stance undermined the intent of open records law, and called it obstructionist. In June 1996, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of DARE, finding that the police department had to make unedited records of complaints public, including results of hearings and reports on disciplinary actions. Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Fortunato questioned the city's lawyer, stating, "[T]ell me how it would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy to disclose the name of a police officer who performs his or her duties in public, who has one of the most visible and important jobs in this society, and now has been determined to have brutalized somebody. What is the privacy interest there, and why would the city want to protect the name of that individual?"26 The State Supreme Court ordered a stay of the Superior Court order in July, after the city appealed the Superior Court decision.
17 Interview with Pat Buchy, Providence Human Relations Commission, August 3, 1995.
20 Interview with ACLU staff, August 2, 1995.
21 Interview with Conteh Davis, DARE, August 3, 1995.
22 DARE also conducted a survey that appeared to confirm serious distrust of the police in many communities, with 400 people stating that they had been harassed or brutalized by police officers. Karen A. Davis, "Police officials see no problem with the process for complaints," Providence Journal-Bulletin, March 19, 1997.
23 It is worth noting that Providence's police department was the only one that refused to respond in any manner to a January 1998 letter of inquiry sent by Human Rights Watch to all fourteen police departments examined in this report.
24 Bruce Landis, "Despite challenges, police-brutality complaints remain sealed," Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 18, 1997.
25 Mike Stanton, "Providence police sued to open brutality files," Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 9, 1995.
26 Landis, "Despite challenges, police-brutality complaints remain sealed," Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 18, 1997.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch