The controversial issue of police brutality has rocked the core of our nation, unequivocally dividing public opinion. There are those who are outraged, calling for dramatic reforms, and police accountability. Others have become numb, turning a blind eye to police violence and deadly use of force.
In particular, some call the Providence, Rhode Island, police a “third-shift terror squad”; a band of officers who patrol south Providence at night and, countless residents claim, strike fear into citizens by inexplicably harassing, and in some cases, assaulting them.
Tension in the Air
Residents of Providence say they can almost cut the tension with a knife between themselves and the police officers who are meant to protect them. The blacks and Latinos of Providence claim they are continuously targeted by the police for no legitimate reason, inciting unnecessary fear in their daily lives.
A Drive in His Neighborhood
In July of 2015, a black former police cadet, Charm, went for a drive in his neighborhood to grab some pizza for himself and his family. But, this drive would be unlike any other. Charm’s drive didn’t end with a hot pizza pie, but with his body slammed against a car.
Sound of Sirens
The pizzeria was close to Charm’s house and a place he frequented with his family. He’d been following the speed limit, enjoying the relaxing evening with a light breeze gently hitting his face. With the pizza in tow, as Charm attempted to park near his house, the unexpected sound of sirens could be heard from close by.
At first, Charm wasn’t certain the sirens were actually meant for him, but when the police car moved close to his car, he realized he was the actual target. Confused and alarmed, Charm asked the rookie officers why he had been stopped when he had done nothing wrong. The officers told Charm they had stopped him for a broken light.
In a matter of minutes, Charm was charged with disorderly conduct, assault and resisting arrest. “I told them, ‘I’m a father. My kids are up there in the window. Please don’t disrespect me in front of my children.’” Not only would Charm feel utterly humiliated in front of his neighbors and family, but this had not been the first encounter with the arresting officers.
Charm, a 35-year-old barber and personal trainer who has a criminal justice degree, knew the men who had arrested him. These men were his former classmates at the police academy. In 2014, after Charm claimed he was bullied by instructors and fellow trainees, he had been dismissed of his duties.
A Bitter Man?
Steven Nelson, the city lawyer who prosecuted Charm after his arrest, argued during the non-jury trial that Charm “was obstinate, he was defiant and he was bitter.” He claimed that when Charm saw his former classmates approach his car, he was furious because “they made it and he did not.”
A Wrongful Arrest
Charm denied the claims by the prosecutor and claimed that the officers disliked him from their days in the academy. Charm accused one of the officers, Patrolman Matthew Sheridan, of calling another ex-classmate during the arrest to mock and laugh at Charm for the situation he was in. Judge Madeline Quirk acquitted Charm and admonished the officers for “huge” inconsistencies in their testimony.
None of the officers involved in Charm’s arrest faced any sort of disciplinary action for the holes in their stories. The lack of accountability may have given these men the chance to abuse their power in the streets of Providence.
Cell Phone Footage
The issue of police brutality is not a new and trending issue, but has been a continuous integral part of our history. The major difference now is the inclusion of video footage, particularly cell phone recordings that capture incidents in their raw state. In Providence, cell phone recordings by bystanders and victims themselves are often used to tell stories of brutality and unnecessary force by the police.
After the encounter with Charm, a video surfaced in 2015 showing Sheridan beating a disabled Latino nightclub employee. In the video footage, Sheridan can be seen applying excessive force towards a man. But with a slap on the wrist, the city gave him only six months of departmental probation and retrained him on the use of force.
And Another …
Sheridan attracted attention yet again when he arrested black writer and performance artist Christopher Johnson. At the time, Johnson was a candidate to be the state’s poet laureate. Sheridan arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct, assault and resisting arrest. Johnson later wrote an essay titled “Walking While Black,” which alleged that Sheridan grabbed him and threw him against a cruiser.
Charm’s story is one of many that have the same common factors: white police officers using brutality or force against colored or Latino citizens. A few weeks later, the same Providence officers were captured on a cellphone video grabbing a Latina woman by the hair and throwing a man to the ground. The city said another officer from Charm’s encounter had pulled the woman’s hair, received a written reprimand, retraining and a one-day suspension.
A Terror Squad
Charm’s lawyer Shannah Kurland, who also represents Johnson and other Providence defendants, called the officers the “third-shift terror squad” and said the incidents “show a pattern of behavior that is completely unacceptable for any person, let alone one who is paid with our tax dollars to carry a gun.”
Outcry for Reform
Cellphone videos that surfaced last year showing questionable use of force against Providence residents have spurred calls for reform and a push for an ordinance banning racial profiling by police. But, Providence’s top police officials defended the department’s record and said they have worked to improve relations and discipline and retrain officers. More than 75 percent of the nearly 400-member force is white, versus 36 percent of the city’s 179,000 residents.
A Diverse Academy
“We’re not perfect, but we’ve had a tremendous record of our use of restraint as a police department,” Police Chief Hugh Clements Jr. said last month during a speech, welcoming the city’s most diverse class of cadets to the academy. “We’re proud of our record, we’re proud of what we’ve done, and we anticipate we’re about to get better.”
A Heated Battle
It is apparent that a fierce battle is brewing between the community of Providence and the police officers who are meant to safeguard their lives. Community activists accuse the police of racial profiling, unnecessary physical force and the arrests of black and Latino citizens. On the other hand, the Providence Police Department justify their actions in response to an alarming surge of crime.
Community members are claiming that the police are following them, taking photos of the youth, and putting them in gang databases when there is no criminal intent or involvement to begin with. “The further you go down Broad Street, the more and more police officers you see. That’s no coincidence. The further you go down Broad Street, the more black and people of color there are,” said activist Vanessa Flores-Maldonado.
Necessary Police Presence
Sgt. Robert Boehm, head of the Providence police union, said the poor and heavily black and Hispanic neighborhood has generated a hike in police calls, and that often translates into more citizen complaints against police. He said the area has had loud parties and “large crowds not cooperating with the police.”
In order for the city to combat the increasing level of complaints against officers, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said the city is planning on expanding the use of police body cameras so that “we can see the entire story and not just snippets” on the Internet. It is crucial that police protect themselves and citizens against any threats, but it does not allow anyone free reign to terrorize communities into fear and oppression.