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The Providence Police Department's upward trend

Eight years ago, the Providence Police Department's failure to implement city-wide community policing was a source of widespread dissatisfaction. I got to see former police chief Urbano Prignano's best Joe Pesci impersonation when I interviewed him and former Captain John Ryan about this at the old police station in LaSalle Square. 

Prignano, who has a reputation for being temperamental, becomes tired and impatient when questioned about the department's record-keeping problems. "Guess what?" he says. "We're fixing it."

Asked about [George] Kelling's prescription for community policing, Prignano says the approach is no different from the tactics used when he became a cop in 1966, when officers on foot patrol were expected by their supervisors to have a comprehensive knowledge of their beats.

But he acknowledges that the segregation of community policing as a distinct unit within the Police Department is a fundamentally flawed approach, shouting at one point during an interview, "You don't split patrol and community policing!"

Mayor David N. Cicilline set in motion one of his top accomplishments -- a far better and more responsive Police Department -- when he selected Dean Esserman as chief. The community policing philosophy has been spread throughout the department, and not suprisingly, police-community relations are significantly better than they were five years ago. While police culture is often resistant to change, Esserman has proven more than capable of thinking outside the box.

The ProJo's Amanda Milkovits detailed the latest instance of this with an excellent and well-told story in yesterday's paper, headlined, 'Closing crack highway.' The initiative, in a nutshell, is a carrot-and-stick approach that aims to curb drug-dealing in upper South Providence by offering some offenders a second chance to help improve their community.

Sgt. William Dwyer and others questioned the logic of being lenient on drug dealers. “Originally, I never thought about giving somebody a second chance. I was always, ‘Lock them up. Put them in jail,’ ” he said.

During a visit to High Point, Lt. Thomas Verdi, head of the Providence police narcotics unit, was struck by how different High Point was from Providence. The North Carolina city, 20 miles southeast of Winston-Salem, is half the size of Providence, and the ghettos there have more green space. “They don’t have the housing developments, the high-rises. They don’t have the [housing] projects like us,” Verdi said. “They don’t have the gang problems we do. We have dozens of ‘beachheads.’ ”

But the High Point police said the problems were the same — drug dealers five deep on corners, gunfire, prostitutes, robberies and murders. After the initiative in May 2004, the decade-old drug markets closed and haven’t revived.

Finally, the Providence police signed on, for the same reason. “Doing something is better than being skeptical and doing nothing,” Stamatakos said.

The effort, as Milkovits's story notes, has yielded real progress, although there's reason to not get too giddy as the warmer months (when crime typically increases) approach. At the very least, though, the PPD's willingness to try this kind of different approach is further evidence of a positive sea change in Rhode Island's largest police department. 

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