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For Providence’s troubled downtown hub, drug sweep part of larger effort, mayor says

Mayor Brett Smiley and Providence Police Chief Oscar Perez said they are hopeful that this sweep, coupled with other plans, will usher in a turning point for Kennedy Plaza

Providence Police Chief Oscar Perez and Mayor Brett Smiley announce arrests Thursday in drug-trafficking sweep at Kennedy Plaza.Amanda Milkovits

PROVIDENCE — Twenty-five people are charged with dealing cocaine after a three-month undercover sweep in Kennedy Plaza, in what Mayor Brett Smiley said is part of a larger effort to make the downtown hub safer.

This public space, where John F. Kennedy rallied a massive crowd the day before he was elected president, is the home of the main terminal for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, and bordered by Burnside Park, City Hall, US District Court, and businesses. And its troubles with drug-trafficking, petty crime, and occasional violence have long defied solutions from previous mayoral administrations.

Over the last decade, there’ve been at least other three narcotics sweeps at Kennedy Plaza, each leading to the arrests of 15 to 23 people at a time. Past mayors and chiefs added more police patrols to the area. RIPTA hired private security. The troubles never really went away.


Smiley and Providence Police Chief Oscar Perez said they are hopeful that this sweep, coupled with other plans, will usher in a turning point for Kennedy Plaza. “There’s been a series of investments in changes in Kennedy Plaza that we hope cumulatively will finally turn the tide,” Smiley said.

The police presence is a large part of the work, Perez said, and the community in the downtown area has been coming together to figure out solutions with the police. The city negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority for additional funds to pay for overtime for more police patrols in Kennedy Plaza, the mayor said.

“It takes enforcement. It takes commitment. It takes, obviously, those individuals who are creating these issues knowing that it’s not going to be tolerated,” said Perez.

The Downtown Improvement District has added more staff to their Clean & Safe team, known as the “yellow jackets,” to instill a sense of safety in the area, Smiley said.


There are social-services groups offering help for those with substance use issues, such as Weber Renew and Crossroads, and the mayor said he expects to announce more social-service supports in the coming weeks.

And, there are prospects of new developments, Smiley said. There are plans to develop a food hall inside downtown’s historic Union Station that could open in the spring of 2024. The Parks Department has plans to enhance the skating rink.

Downtown residents, those who own and work in downtown businesses, those attending the colleges just blocks away, and visitors to the city will all benefit from a revival of Kennedy Plaza, Burnside Park, and the nearby Waterplace Park Basin, Smiley said.

“I see a community coming together to both try to address some of the real safety and security issues, but also the promise of new investment and new opportunities, and so it remains a place that is full of opportunity,” Smiley said.

This latest sweep led to arrest warrants for 25 people, who range in age from 23 to 56 years old, all charged with unlawful delivery of cocaine. The chief said 19 have been arrested so far, and six others remain at large. Seventeen are Providence residents.

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.