PROVIDENCE — Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza on Friday appointed a friend who is the city director of recreation to be a police major, despite his not having any experience in law enforcement.
Michael Stephens, who runs the mayor’s annual golf tournament, attended the Providence police citizens police academy years ago — the closest he came to any law enforcement training.
He is, however, an experienced NCAA officiator, with 20 years as referee under his belt, and has officiated at several Final Fours. This summer, Stephens was hired as coordinator of men’s basketball officials for America East Conference and for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. It’s unclear whether he will continue with those jobs now that he is the new Major of Community Relations and Diversion Services for the city of Providence, although a spokeswoman for the mayor said Stephens will not officiate at the NCAA this year.
The Major position pays between $113,268 - $120,189. Applicants were required to have a minimum of 10 years in police field work or public safety and a bachelor’s degree focused on criminal justice, public administration, or the equivalent, according to the city job posting.
Elorza had also been under pressure from community leaders to promote a veteran Black officer to be major. But even though Stephens doesn’t meet the basic requirements for the new major’s job, the mayor chose him over officers of color from the Providence Police Department and other agencies who had also applied.
This is the first time in recent memory that a civilian has been put in a command staff position in the Providence Police Department, and after numerous questions to the mayor’s office, police administrators, and at least one member of the search committee, it became clear that no one could explain how the job would work.
Stephens did not respond to requests for comment Friday. A mayor’s spokeswoman did not answer questions about his qualifications or responsibilities, or explain how Stephens fit into the scope of the position. Elorza was also not made available for comment.
Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. told the Globe on Friday that Stephens will not wear a uniform, will not carry a gun, and will not have any arrest powers. He said it remained to be seen what type of law enforcement training would be appropriate for Stephens’ new position. The major answers to the chief.
“There are models out there where civilians have been put in this role to be greater liaisons in the community, and that’s a role Mike can fit and fill,” Clements said. “I know this model has been used in bigger cities in the current climate. We’ll see what other departments have done . . . and what exact role he’ll play.”
City Council President John Igliozzi said Friday afternoon that this isn’t what the council had in mind when they included funding for the new major’s position in the fiscal year 2022 budget. The intent was to create a major’s position to build greater trust between the Providence police and the diverse communities in the city, he said.
“Michael Stephens has a commendable record of community leadership and service with the Providence Recreation Department. These are admirable qualifications for a civilian community-police liaison position,” Igliozzi said in a statement. “They are, however, not the qualifications for the position of Major within the Providence Police Department’s command structure, particularly as many other trained officers have worked hard to move up the ranks within our police force.”
Igliozzi offered to have the council work with Elorza to change the name and scope of this position from police major to public safety community-police liaison. “This will resolve any confusion about roles and make clear that this is a civilian position,” Igliozzi said.
The mayor did not respond.
According to the city’s job posting, the new major is supposed to oversee the police training bureau and training academy and be responsible for the recruitment, selection, retention, and training of police recruits. The new major would also be responsible for developing and executing diversion programs to reduce police calls for service and also be knowledgeable about emerging trends in law enforcement.
The new major is also responsible for the promotions and testing process for supervisors, while also being able to direct officers under their command. They would also be involved in building relationships and trust within the community, working cooperatively with community groups and agencies in planning and organizing projects that are beneficial to the community and in line with department goals and core function, “while maximizing state and federal grant opportunities.”
Officer Michael Imondi, president of the Providence police union, said the union’s position against Stephens’ appointment wasn’t personal. While the city can appoint anyone to a position outside of the union, he said, there were a lot of questions about a civilian being put in a high-ranking position in a major law enforcement agency.
“We would prefer a major would be of law enforcement cloth,” Imondi told the Globe on Friday. “If you’re in charge of the academy, you have to have some knowledge of what law enforcement does and the qualifications.”
Stephens has worked for the city’s recreation services for more than 20 years, primarily as a coach of youth sports. In addition to his work as a NCAA basketball referee, he is a founder of the Rhode Island Breakers AAU basketball program, a former coach at Davey Lopes Recreation Center, and served as president of the West Elmwood Intruders youth football team. He grew up in Providence and graduated from Central High School.
When Elorza became mayor, he gave Stephens a key to the city and then appointed him as director of recreation services in 2015.
“Throughout Michael Stephens’ accomplished career, he has always prioritized community-building on behalf of the City of Providence,” Elorza said in a statement Friday afternoon announcing his decision, after questions from the Globe about the appointment. “As the city’s first Community Relations and Diversion Services Major, Michael will continue to serve as a relationship-builder, strengthening and expanding the connections between our community and the police department while bringing the voice of the community to the highest levels of leadership within the department.”
The mayor did not respond to specific questions about Stephens’ qualifications or lack of law enforcement experience, training, or certification.
Instead, he told the Globe in a statement issued by a spokesperson: “Stephens has extensive community-building experience and meaningful relationships throughout the City, stemming both from his experience as the City’s Director of Recreation and from his personal community involvement. In order to be effective in this role, the Major must have existing connections to our community, and be a strong relationship-builder as we look to strengthen our partnerships between the City, law enforcement, first responders, healthcare professionals, and our community. Mike Stephens has a proven track record of meeting and surpassing these qualifications.”
The mayor also said that the city is undergoing plans to assess how the city responds to emergencies and develop recommendations for the design of a Behavioral Health Crisis Response Project. “This is an opportunity to change how we approach public safety and behavioral health issues in our city,” he said in the statement.
Over the years, there’ve been calls for more Black officers to be represented in the higher ranks at the Providence Police Department. Past mayors have responded to the “Black Major Movement” by appointing Black officers.
Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. promoted a detective to major. Mayor David N. Cicilline appointed the former head of the Providence Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to lead the department’s new homeland security division.
Community members and political leaders began pressing Elorza to promote a veteran Black Providence officer as a major in 2015, though the lack of Black officers in high positions has been an issue since at least the 1990s.
Jim Vincent, the president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, was among those on the search committee for the new major. He said they interviewed eight people, including some civilians.
Stephens was one of four applicants, and the only civilian, who the committee chose as finalists, Vincent said. Their names were given to Elorza, who chose Stephens.
“Mike knows community backwards and forwards. He has street credibility and can really effect change,” Vincent said. “I know him well and regard him highly, and I think he has the credibility to run a diversion program in Providence.”
Though the job requirements include experience in law enforcement, Vincent said he didn’t think the job needed to be held by a police officer. “We’re in tough times, and it take creative solutions,” he said. “Right now, police community relations are low, . . . so you need to do something to change that, and this is a dramatic move.”
“He’s a leader, he’s a manager in the city, he’s touched many lives in the city in terms of the youth, and he’s popular with the community,” Vincent added. “I think he’ll be able to win over the rank and file.”
However, Stephens’ lack of training or experience in law enforcement raised multiple questions from officers who will be working for him and under the policies and training that he will be expected to develop.
Imondi, the Providence police union’s president, said the job should have been filled with someone from the law enforcement field that was post certified, at a bare minimum.
“This once again clearly shows a lack of understanding, leadership, and arrogance on the mayor’s behalf, once again pandering to the political winds,” Imondi said. “This sets a bad precedent for future appointments of individuals who have no law enforcement experience in positions that clearly call for it. . . . But then again we have a mayor who had no qualifications to lead a city and we see what that’s done to the city of Providence, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.”
In the announcement of Stephens’ appointment, the mayor also included the promotions of Providence police Captains Kevin Lanni and Henry Remolina to fill vacancies left by two majors who retired and took chief jobs in other municipalities. Both Lanni and Remolina graduated from the same police academy in 1997 and have risen through the ranks, working in the community policing unit, narcotics bureau, and other divisions in the Police Department.