Providence One of Many U.S. Police Forces Feeling Ferguson Aftershocks

Kevin Johnson, USA Today, December 28, 2015

At daily roll calls, where local cops have always assembled for amiable operational briefings, there are now uncomfortable questions.

The inquiries come, Providence police chief Hugh Clements said, from officers increasingly worried that doing their jobs may turn them into the next YouTube sensation, depicting yet another highly charged encounter between citizen and cop.

On the streets, where Maj. Tom Verdi spent the early days of his nearly three decades on the force, the respectful nods of acknowledgement have been replaced with some “hostile’’ stares. And within the ethnically mixed South Side, Lt. Henry Remolina said the black and white uniform often renders him a stranger in the very neighborhood where he grew up.

There is no tying the tension here to any specific confrontation gone bad. No shooting, no beating captured on video. Rather, it is akin, law enforcement officials and community leaders said, to a powerful aftershock that has reignited long-unresolved social grievances in Providence and in many other cities across the country following the wave of civil unrest that swept through Ferguson, Albuquerque, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, North Charleston, S.C., and Staten Island.

In the past 16 months, the so-called “Ferguson Effect” has become a staple in the American vernacular. Yet very few agree on what exactly that means and what it may portend for the future relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

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If there is a common thread, it is a theme of law enforcement under siege where the smoke and embers of more than a year of civil unrest has ushered in an era of persistent suspicion.

Clements, who began his career in Providence more than three decades ago as a patrolman before his appointment as chief in 2012, said that the job has been transformed in recent months by new scrutiny, often rooted in events playing out far beyond his Rhode Island jurisdiction.

“There is an uneasiness among the boots on the ground,” he said. “Everything we do now can be called into question. Everything is a delicate balance. Whether it happens in California or Texas, leaders in our community want to know what we think of it and what we are doing about it. This is a transformational time in law enforcement; I don’t think we know where it will end.”

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Just two months ago, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland was sharing a stage with Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in Washington, D.C, where a coalition of law enforcement officials was touting a dramatic reversal in criminal justice strategy.

The group, with McCarthy in the vanguard, called for an end to mass incarceration and alternatives to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have swept up scores of non-violent African American offenders and helped drive a wedge between minority communities and police that has only grown wider since Ferguson.

“The goal is to fix the system,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy, however, will no longer be around to assist with the system’s repair. Earlier this month, McClelland watched from afar along with much of the nation as the Chicago superintendent was swept out of office in the storm that followed the release of yet another video showing the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white officer.  A police dashcam video showed Laquan McDonald, 17, crumpling on a Chicago street last year after being shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke, who has since been charged with first-degree murder.

The video and McCarthy’s ouster sent a new shiver through the ranks of law enforcement across the country which has been reeling since last year’s eruption in tiny Ferguson.

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