A Municipal Vote in Providence for Police Reform Carries National Implications
After three years of sustained community mobilization and advocacy, the Providence City Council in Rhode Island voted on April 20 to unanimously approve among the most visionary set of policing reforms proposed around the country to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including digital liberties. EFF supported the proposed Community Safety Act (CSA), and its adoption represents a milestone that should prompt similar measures in other jurisdictions.
The bill also protects Due Process rights threatened by the otherwise arbitrary and secretive inclusion of individuals in government gang databases.
In California, for instance, state auditors discovered that the state’s program received “no state oversight” and operated “without transparency or meaningful opportunities for public input,” prompting the state legislature to intervene by passing a new law providing notice of inclusion and an opportunity to contest it.
At the same time, responding to controversy about traffic stops and pedestrian stop and frisks rooted in bias rather than observed behavior, the Act requires that police change their processes for searching subjects.
In particular, when seeking to search subjects without either a judicial warrant or probable cause to suspect criminal activity, the Act requires police to inform the subjects that they have the right to decline consent to the requested search.
That represents a sea change in policing, given the practice among some police departments to train officers to use deception to induce a subject's consent, ensuring that it is neither informed nor voluntary.
Similarly, the Act's restrictions on racial profiling and intelligence collection absent reasonable suspicion of criminal activity offer important bulwarks to reinforce our Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as 14th Amendment protections to be free from racial and other forms of discrimination.
Beyond the CSA’s substantive breath lies a novel theory of change informing its construction. Rather than a discrete reform proposed by advocates, the CSA represents a concerted attempt to address the intersectional concerns of several communities responding to a common challenge: discriminatory or otherwise unconstitutional police practices.
While Providence has distinguished itself in the remarkably diverse coalition of community groups that have come together to pursue common cause, the issues to which Providence activists are responding are hardly unique to their city. Ultimately, grassroots groups in every major city across the country might learn something from the coalition to pass the Providence Community Safety Act.
Author Shahid Buttar is a civil rights lawyer, hip-hop MC, grassroots community organizer, and independent journalist. His commentary has appeared in various print and broadcast outlets, including The Washington Post; The New York Times; Bloomberg; Hannity & Colmes on FOX News; The Laura Flanders Show on Air America; TomPaine.com; Common Dreams; and Democracy Now! on NPR, which named one of his public addresses among "The Best of 2004."