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‘Defund the police’ was a rallying cry after George Floyd’s murder, but police budgets have mostly gone up in R.I.

Progressive activists continue to rally to defund and abolish the police, but the call to action fades among residents in Rhode Island

Protesters march through downtown as part of a youth organized Juneteenth demonstration Friday, June 19, 2020, in Providence,
Protesters march through downtown as part of a youth organized Juneteenth demonstration Friday, June 19, 2020, in Providence,David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — For months after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis cop last June, many of the protesters who took to the streets of Rhode Island had a demand: Defund the police.

A year later, the opposite has happened. Some of Rhode Island’s biggest and busiest police departments have seen increases in funding. Others stayed relatively level. And no department has seen meaningful cuts, as cities like Austin and Seattle have.

In Providence, the local epicenter of a national protest movement against racism and oppression, Mayor Jorge Elorza has proposed a $2 million funding increase for the police department in the next budget cycle, on top of a roughly $3 million boost for the current budget. That would bring the police department budget to $93.8 million, or about 17 percent of the total city spending plan.

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Those increases were driven in part by pay hikes negotiated in the police union contract, as well as an ongoing training academy that will bring almost 50 new officers onto the force. Activists pressured the city to forgo them. They passed anyway.

“It’s been pretty absurd, the past few months, that the city leadership in Providence, the mayor and the City Council, have been advocating for proposed increases to the police budget,” said Justice Gaines, an organizer in Providence. “Ultimately none of these things are going to create a safer Providence, a safer Rhode Island. We haven’t seen that policing has worked to better conditions for residents of Providence. Particularly Black and brown and low-income folks.”

Police officers and National Guard soldiers make their way through a smoke filled street as they chase and confront protesters after curfew and after a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Providence, Rhode Island on June 5, 2020.
Police officers and National Guard soldiers make their way through a smoke filled street as they chase and confront protesters after curfew and after a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Providence, Rhode Island on June 5, 2020. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Elorza, in an interview, said that he’s working to bring fundamental change to the police department, an effort that includes $600,000 in funding for a pilot program to divert behavioral health crisis calls to experts equipped to handle them. The city also commissioned a report that studied what sorts of calls police respond to, and whether some tasks would better be handled by someone other than armed agents of the government.

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But, Elorza said, many constituents tell him they don’t want the police to go away, even as they’re concerned about individual abuses.

A push for more of a police presence

“From everyday constituents, they would like to see more of a police presence, especially as it relates to quality of life issues,” Elorza said. “When they call the police, be it a noise complaint or a disturbance, they’d like to see a quicker response, and they’d like to see more of a police presence.”

Elorza, a second-term Democrat, also cautioned patience. Pilot programs could prevent cities from having to undo sweeping changes made

too quickly, and a long-term approach may lead to better outcomes. “The idea is that you also have a much safer community,” Elorza said. “At the end of the day that’s what everybody wants.”

Some activists, though, have been less than satisfied with the progress. When Elorza was briefing the news media about the consultants’ report at a Zoom meeting in April, for example, Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, the co-executive director of the Providence Youth Student Movement, jumped in.

“Community policing is actually something we’re not asking for as a community because that actually places us in more danger,” Flores-Maldonado said. “It is not helpful to have more police who look like us to give us ice cream only to violate our constitutional rights out on the streets when we’re mourning our community members … What we’re asking for is complete defunding of the Providence Police Department, so we can shape safety in a way that doesn’t maintain a violent system.”

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Several thousand people angered by the death of George Floyd held a rally at Burnside Park in Downtown Providence and then marched to the steps of the Rhode Island State House.
Several thousand people angered by the death of George Floyd held a rally at Burnside Park in Downtown Providence and then marched to the steps of the Rhode Island State House.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Searching for deep and lasting reform

Defunding the police is not a new idea, but when it gained renewed attention last year, there was some debate about what it would actually look like. Would it mean diverting some law enforcement resources to things like housing and healthcare and mental health crisis responses? Abolishing police departments outright?

One thing defunding the police surely did not mean, local activists interviewed for this story all agreed, is more money for police budgets.

Skeptics of defunding the police, on the other hand, say the high-profile protests and strident activism obscured a more basic reality in their communities: People want deep and lasting reform, and they might be critical of particular police officers or practices, but they aren’t sold on having fewer police officers. That was especially true amid the uptick in shootings and homicides in the city in the past few months.

“My neighbors were saying, ‘My elders need to be protected,’” Providence Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who represents Upper South Providence and the West End, said in an interview. “My neighbors were pushing back: ‘What do you mean? That’s who we call to protect ourselves.’”

According to a March Ipsos/USA Today poll, just 18 percent of respondents supported the defund the police movement. Twenty-eight percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Democrats were in favor of it, the poll found. When pollsters asked whether people supported redirecting police funds to social services, more were in favor — 43 percent — but still not the majority of respondents.

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The Providence City Council still hasn’t voted to approve the budget proposal that has the $2 million increase in police funding. Several City Council members said at a community forum in July 2020 that they would not vote to approve a budget that didn’t divert some police funds for social services, according to UpriseRI. (Harris was not among them.) None responded to requests for comment for this story nearly a year later.

“I feel like there is an opportunity to make some change,” said Shey Rivera, a Providence activist and artist who was at that July 2020 forum. “But I’m not sure, considering what’s been happening on the city level.”

Vatic Kuumba, an activist who also participated in that July 2020 community meeting, said he was mindful of the fact that change would not be immediate.

“There is a community of people who are still doing this work,” he said. “There’s a community of people who are doing this work and have been — they’re not loud. Protesting in that type of way. But our every breath is a protest.”

Protesters rally on the steps of the State House, calling for an end to Police injustice, in Providence on June 5, 2020.
Protesters rally on the steps of the State House, calling for an end to Police injustice, in Providence on June 5, 2020. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Outside of Providence, fewer calls to defund police

If the defund the police movement in Providence has lost momentum, it’s never had much outside of it.

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“There are a few progressive liberals that feel defunding the police is a new way to go, but I don’t agree with it at all,” said Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins, a Republican. “I agree that we can re-evaluate what our techniques are, to try to stay current with modern techniques. We need to find ways to defuse, not defund.”

The most-recently passed city budget in Cranston, the state’s second-largest city, has about $1.3 million more in funding for the police.

In Warwick, the state’s third-largest city, the most recent budget has about $241,000 more funds for the police, a 1 percent boost.

“I don’t get anyone saying they want the police defunded,” Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi, an independent, said. “The police department is very well respected in Warwick. They’re not funded enough.”

In Pawtucket, defunding the police department “was not an option,” said Emily Rizzo, constituent service and community associate there. The department was essentially level-funded for the next budget, and will include more community policing and partnerships with the Nonviolence Institute and the Family Services Go Team.

In predominantly Latino Central Falls, the smallest city in the state by square mileage, the police department is set for a roughly $200,000 boost under the budget passed by the City Council on Monday. That was largely driven by mandatory pay increases under the union contract.

“Our priority is investing, as a city and with our police department, in positive programs, relationships, and opportunities that will continue to build up and support our community,” Mayor Maria Rivera told the Globe in an emailed statement.

In smaller departments, too, from Westerly to Foster and Newport to Woonsocket, budget increases have been the rule of the day. Law enforcement officials say despite those topline numbers, they’ve made significant changes and have pledged to do more, including better discipline and recruiting a more diverse workforce.

“At the end of the day, if you’re showing you’re holding people accountable when they do something wrong — that’s what the expectation is,” said Sid Wordell, the executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association.

Wordell said he’s not aware of a single department in Rhode Island that’s seen any sort of substantial budget cut, and he believes the majority of Rhode Islanders don’t want that, even though they haven’t been as loud about it as the protesters and activists.

“To pull money away isn’t the answer,” Wordell said. “Who do you call when you have an issue? It’s law enforcement.”

Police officers kneel down and shake hands with protesters during a Black Lives Matter rally in Providence, Rhode Island on June 5, 2020.
Police officers kneel down and shake hands with protesters during a Black Lives Matter rally in Providence, Rhode Island on June 5, 2020. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

A new push among progressive politicians and activists

The governor of Rhode Island, meanwhile, is proposing a new $28 million barracks for the state police in East Greenwich to replace two crumbling, outdated facilities. An earlier proposal would have gone to voters for approval to borrow for the barracks. But Governor Dan McKee decided to forgo the vote so construction could start sooner, his press secretary, Alana O’Hare, said in an email. That happened after he visited one of the barracks that state police officials say needs to be replaced.

Some state lawmakers, newly elected in a wave of progressives who took office this year, say it’s the opposite of what they have been calling for. State Representative David Morales, a Democrat of Providence, said his bill to provide healthcare under the RIte Track program to all children regardless of immigration status would cost a maximum of $5 million, just a portion of what the barracks will cost.

“There’s frustration from advocates who have been on the ground for decades, well before the tragic murder of George Floyd,” Morales said. “We have a real shot of amending a budget that reallocates $28 million so that people will benefit on an everyday basis.”

Some activists are now turning their attention to those who partner with the police. A letter released Wednesday signed by DARE, the Democratic Socialists, Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC, and others called for defunding the Nonviolence Institute, a nonprofit agency that offers nonviolence training, supports victims, and intervenes in gang feuds.

On an overcast Saturday in June, the local movement to defund the police gathered at a ballfield on Chalkstone Avenue in Providence. About 20 activists sat on bleachers and listened to speeches from, among others, state Senator Tiara Mack and Harrison Tuttle, the executive director of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC.

“Oftentimes when I have conversations with people, difficult conversations with people around defunding the police, the conversation is centered around being able to not only defund the police, but replace that with an actual way that serves the people, and doesn’t kill our people and doesn’t pull over our people and be a recipient of oppression,” Tuttle told the attendees.

It was a smaller crowd compared to the thousands who gathered over the summer. But to the activists, many of them affiliated with the Providence Democratic Socialists of America, it was a sign of the next phase: talking to people face to face and convincing them that defunding the police and reinvesting in the community will make everyone safer. They went over scripts touting the virtues of their vision, and decried recent increases in police funding. Then some of those who came out went into the neighborhoods to make their case.

Only a few days later, though, progressives were yet again in an uproar over police funding when McKee announced a new program to outfit police officers around the state with body cameras, at a cost of about $3 million per year in state funding for the first five years. That’s not the end goal, several activists and progressives said.

Said Mack, the Providence state senator, in a Tweet responding to the news about the body cameras: “It’s still defund and abolish.”

Amanda Milkovits of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.