Clampdown in the Providence Police Department

As someone who helped chronicle the troubled state of the Providence Police Department during the latter part of Buddy II, I think Dean Esserman has represented a necessary and important fix for a department in need of modernization and greater accountability.

However, as Te-Ping Chen reports in this week's Phoenix, a heightened emphasis on Internal Affairs under Esserman has become a contentious issue for some Providence officers. Included among these is former Sergeant Steven Petrella, who, represented by former Speaker John Harwood, is suing the Fraternal Order of Police, in what is billed as the first suit against the FOP in recent memory.   

And Petrella is only one of many Providence officers who have lost their jobs since Esserman, who was recruited by Mayor David N. Cicilline, arrived in 2003.
Inspector Frank Colon, the director of Internal Affairs, declines to reveal how many officers have lost their jobs — because, he says, it would be bad for morale — but it’s clear that Esserman has raised the focus on internal discipline. Colon says that more officers have been fired, demoted, or disciplined under Esserman than during any comparable period in the past two decades. Previously, there was a lower threshold for becoming part of Internal Affairs’ six-person staff (which the FOP says has doubled under Esserman); now, says Colon, those who police the police must, at minimum, attain the rank of detective.

In some ways, the heightened focus on Internal Affairs is a good thing, but what's up with a civic-minded chief who can't stand being questioned by a reporter?

Before Esserman, Internal Affairs “blocked civilian complaints and actively prevented investigations into officers’ records,” says Andrew Horwitz, who directs the Criminal Defense Clinic at Roger Williams University Law School.
Now, Internal Affairs takes a far more proactive approach. A new computerized system monitors personnel records, flagging officers’ files when troublesome behavioral patterns emerge. Supervisors and officers are required to document more of their actions, says Inspector Colon.
“It sends a message,” says Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in South Providence, an Esserman fan whose street workers are a part of Providence’s success in reducing violent crime. “It lets the community know that [Internal Affairs] is an important part of how the department functions.”
Yet there’s little doubt that Esserman, a Dartmouth College-New York University Law School grad who never worked as a patrolman, is an unusual cop — and one with an acid temper.
During an interview at the station, he excoriated me for questioning the consistency of in-house discipline, eventually saying that I should be “ashamed,” and stalking out of the room. Nevertheless, before walking out, Esserman said that what some may perceive as unfair is simply the holding of officers to an appropriately high standard. “Your badge doesn’t protect you,” he says. “If you lie or violate the rules, you don’t deserve to stand with us.”
But Horwitz remains concerned that officers still face inconsistent discipline under Esserman.
Horwitz cites one of his pending complaints filed with Internal Affairs, against an officer charged with misconduct. While a department hearing officer told him that the allegations are probably true, Horwitz says, the hearing officer also told him the charges are likely to be dismissed because the administration holds the other officer, who has recently been promoted, in favor.
“Some officers are severely reprimanded and lose their jobs,” says another patrolman. “Others don’t even get a slap on the wrist.”

Colon — who maintains that policing his peers is the toughest job on the force — shakes his head at such statements. “It’s a complex function we perform,” he says, adding that two people can violate the same rule and be differently disciplined, depending on their history. “There’s no disciplinary matrix that says if you violate this rule, this is what your punishment will be,” Colon says. “We do the best we can, and we think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

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