PROVIDENCE — The National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers said Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s appointment of the city’s recreation director to be a Providence police major calls into question the mayor’s judgement to make decisions that affect public safety.
And, the association’s chairman said, the mayor’s choice of a civilian without experience over qualified Black law enforcement officers was demeaning and showed a lack of consideration and respect.
On Friday, Elorza chose Michael Stephens, an NCAA referee and friend who also runs his annual golf tournament, for a new six-figure position as a police major in charge of Community Relations and Diversion Services. The job posting said the salary range was $113,268 - $120,189; it wasn’t immediately known what Stephens would be paid.
Stephens has no experience in law enforcement, aside from graduating from the citizens academy in 2016. Yet as a major, Stephens will oversee the police training bureau and training academy and be responsible for the recruitment and training of police recruits. He’ll also be responsible for developing diversion programs to reduce police calls for service, directing police officers under his command, and conducting the promotions and testing process for supervisors.
The longtime national chairman of NABLEO, which represents 9,000 Black and Hispanic law enforcement officers, was aghast.
“You are talking about a person who will now have authority and responsibility to select people as police supervisors, and determine the training regimen for police officers, and with the responsibility to be involved with recruitment... and he has not got Day One of experience and training as a police officer,” retired police Lt. Charles Wilson told the Globe on Tuesday. “And you’re going to put him in the command structure? I don’t freaking think so.”
Stephens doesn’t meet the basic requirements of the job — a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or the equivalent, and at least 10 years law enforcement experience — but the mayor touted his work in the community and as an NCAA basketball referee. The new police major will 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 the department goals and core function.
Stephens has experience as a community organizer and director of recreation, Wilson said, but that doesn’t make him capable of commanding police officers.
“He’s not going to understand concepts of criminal code, or why do police officers make arrests, why do we find the need at times for use of force,” Wilson said. “He’s not going to understand the reasons that we train for certain things, yet you’re telling me he’s going to be responsible for picking supervisors? No. You don’t have any idea who that person is supposed to supervise.”
The mayor’s choice also sent a damning message to veteran Black officers in Rhode Island, some of whom contacted NABLEO in dismay after the announcement of Stephens’ appointment on Friday.
There’ve been calls since the 1990s for the promotion of Black law enforcement officers, to little avail. Right now, there are just 11 Black officers in Rhode Island above the rank of patrolman, including three in the Providence Police Department, Wilson said.
All three Providence Black officers applied for the major’s position, he said. The Mayor instead picked a civilian.
“What you’ve said is that none are qualified for this position,” Wilson said of Elorza’s choice. “You’ve said there will still be no qualified black law enforcement officers who have a voice in top levels of the Providence Police Department.”
NABLEO is urging the mayor to consider a proposal made by City Council President John Igliozzi to change the job from police major to public safety community-police liaison. The police major position should be reposted for a candidate “with more credible qualifications,” Wilson said.
Elorza did not respond to Igliozzi’s suggestion on Friday, nor has he answered any questions about his decision.
Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. said that Stephens will not wear a uniform or carry a firearm, and it wasn’t clear what exactly he would be doing as a major. 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. A spokeswoman for the mayor said Stephens will not officiate at the NCAA this year.
Stephens has worked for the city for more than 20 years, primarily as a youth coach and, under Elorza, as recreation services director. The mayor gave him the key to the city to honor Stephens when he was named an NCAA referee.
The Fraternal Order of Police in Providence is also opposing Stephens’ appointment because of his lack of training or experience in law enforcement.
“This appointment of a non-police officer to the position of major is a slap in the face to every Providence Police officer who has studied for and taken promotional exams and worked hard every day to achieve rank over their careers,” union president Officer Michael Imondi said Tuesday. “The mayor clearly tells us by making this decision that he does not care about the efforts our officers make to achieve rank and perform their jobs well. He is telling us all that he is just going to do whatever he wants, regardless of how it looks.”