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After 11 years, Providence’s greatest police chief is leaving on his own terms

Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements in downtown Providence.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

After presiding over his final promotion ceremony as Providence’s chief of police on Tuesday afternoon, and between all the hugs and handshakes and thank yous from hundreds of well-wishers, Colonel Hugh Clements stopped, looked around the city’s public safety complex, and offered the perfect reflection on his career.

“I told myself a long time ago that I wanted to leave knowing that I could always come back here or go to the FOP [union hall],” Clements said to no one in particular.

Mission accomplished.

On Friday, Clements will officially step away as chief after 11 years on the job – and 37 years in the department – to head to D.C. to become the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) for the Department of Justice.

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He’s the second longest-serving chief in the city’s history, behind only Benjamin Child, who was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg and later led the department for 16 years. But he’s also the greatest chief the city has ever known, for helping to build the high-quality department that no one would have predicted Providence could have when he started on the job in 1985.

Clements is one of the few people in law enforcement who has earned universal respect from three different mayors, his command staff, the rank-and-file members of the force, and most importantly, the community he serves. Go catch a Friars game one night, and you’ll see. Clements gets cheered almost as much as Coach Ed Cooley, one of his dear friends.

And to think, Clements never thought he’d be the chief.

Known universally as Hughie, Clements likes to joke that his career in the police department can be split into two halves.

For one, his tenure as a member of the rank-and-file is divided almost down the middle between wearing the uniform and being in plainclothes as a detective.

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But the most consequential split had to do with policy, not positions: He spent the first half of his career in a centralized department where virtually every decision was based on the time of day you punched in and the time of day you punched out. The latter half, as he moved up the ranks, has been a decentralized approach with an emphasis on community policing and data-driven decision-making.

As a young officer, he earned his credibility by doing solid police work. He went undercover to buy “a lot of guns from a lot of bad guys,” so much so that he had to watch his back for years just in case someone he locked up sought revenge. He also helped take down a faction of the Latin Kings with a major RICO case in the 1990s.

Clements came close to staying in the officer ranks. “I bypassed a couple of lieutenant’s tests,” he recalled. “I never really aspired to be the chief.”

The department never quite received the credit it deserved for its progress and success, in part because of a legacy of corruption that stretched all the way to City Hall. In fact, Clements rose to vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police union in part because he opposed the way then-mayor Buddy Cianci and the police chief used nepotism and favoritism rather than qualifications when making promotions.

Flash forward a couple of years, and Providence’s new reformer mayor, David Cicilline, brought in an outsider chief named Dean Esserman to overhaul the police department. Esserman never won over the rank-and-file, but he knew how to spot talent like Clements, and he ushered in the modern era of policing.

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“That’s when my world really changed,” Clements said. “I became that community-oriented police officer.”

Clements admits he was “tepid” at first about buying into strategies like community policing, but he embraced it because “it worked.” He cleaned up the Manton Avenue area, which was overrun with drugs and prostitution. Community organizations like Olneyville Housing (now One Neighborhood Builders) put him on their board of directors.

By the time Esserman was forced out in 2011, Clements had emerged as the clear choice to be his successor. It was the city’s public safety commissioner, Steven Pare, who recommended Clements for the job to then-mayor Angel Taveras.

Clements built on everything Esserman started, becoming a chief who was more responsive to residents across the city and more respected internally because he came up through the ranks.

“I’m going to miss everything about him, but especially because he has always been so accessible,” said Cedric Huntley, executive director of the Nonviolence Institute.

In recent years, Clements navigated a historically challenging terrain for all of law enforcement when the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police sparked civil unrest across the country and prompted cities to revisit law enforcement practices.

Yet here in Rhode Island, the politicians who had always been so quick to praise Clements ignored him when he supported modest reforms to state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. But Providence residents largely stood by him – even when some city cops faced criticism in several use-of-force cases.

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There were moments during that period when Clements worried that he might be pushed out of his job. But then-mayor Jorge Elorza never seriously considered parting ways with him. Without saying it, they both knew Clements was too respected to move on from.

That popularity has never been higher as Clements prepares for his next move. As Mayor Brett Smiley said on Tuesday, the respect for Clements stretches far beyond Providence’s borders, and in his new role, will now be on full display for police departments across the country.

Clements is eligible for a generous severance package: $261,000 in accumulated sick and vacation time that will be paid out over three years. He’s one of the last high-ranking public safety employees eligible for that kind of payout because of reforms that occurred while he was chief.

As anyone who has paid attention to Providence over the past 11 years will tell you: Clements has been worth every penny.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.