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Monday, February 1, 2010

Council Seeks to Uphold Reform of Independent Police Review Board (PERA)

Mayor/City Solicitor act to stymie reform through lawsuit and veto

Following the City Council’s successful passage of legislation enacting substantial reforms of Providence’s board responsible for civilian oversight of the Police Department (Providence External Review Authority or PERA), the City Solicitor on Friday filed a civil lawsuit in Superior Court challenging the structure of the original 2002 ordinance, which created PERA. Today, Mayor David N. Cicilline vetoed the new PERA ordinance, which the Council passed 10 days ago.

Since 2002, the Executive Director of PERA has been hired by the Board.  However, on Friday, January 29th, the City Solicitor filed an action challenging the Board’s power to hire, and claiming that the authority is the Mayor’s alone. On Monday, February 1st, the Mayor supported this action by vetoing the revised PERA ordinance, which the Council adopted to make the organization more effective.

“It was a surprise that the Solicitor and Mayor would take such steps,” said Councilman Seth Yurdin, “as for over eight years, it has been the Board, not the Mayor, that has been responsible for hiring the executive director.” Yurdin observed that, “Given the financial duress faced by the city, the administration’s lawsuit is an irresponsible waste of taxpayer money.”

Councilman Miguel Luna, Chairman of the Special Commission to Study PERA, stated, “We are quite disappointed with the administration’s actions.” He continued, “The committee worked for a number of months to address and improve what nearly everyone agreed was an underperforming organization.  The Council met with representatives of the administration and incorporated a number of their suggestions into the final law.  The legislation as passed makes good sense: reducing the number of board members by more than half; increasing both its efficiency and effectiveness; and maintaining the proper level of independent oversight as was set out in the original 2002 ordinance.”

Majority Leader Terrence M. Hassett questioned the City’s commitment to civilian review. “The administration’s apparent opposition to PERA reforms puts into question whether or not it is serious about independent civilian oversight of the police department,” he said. “Unfortunately, the latest actions appear to be a continuation of a pattern of interfering with PERA’s independent operation, including, most recently, refusing to pay the organization’s rent.”
Councilman Yurdin added, “It’s ironic that, if the administration is successful in stopping the reforms as passed by the Council, the City is right back where it started—with an unwieldy organization not doing its job as well as it could. At the same time, the administration’s goal of gaining the power to hire the Executive Director will be unsuccessful, because the 2002 law will still be in effect, leaving that power with the Board.” Yurdin noted that, “The Council is doing everything in its power to support and strengthen independent civilian oversight of the police department in our city, yet the administration keeps putting blockades in our path.”

Notwithstanding the current challenges, Majority Leader Hassett stated that, “The City Council remains committed to making PERA the valuable resource for our citizens it was intended to be. The whole point is to create the best possible relationship between the police and the public. PERA ‘s purpose is to fill a void and improve trust among all parties. The Council understands the value of civilian oversight, and we will fight to ensure that PERA remains independent, and operates without interference from any branch of government.”

The Council will consider the Mayor’s veto at a Special Meeting on Thursday, February 4th, as well vote on a resolution to retain an attorney to respond to the City Solicitor’s lawsuit.

The Providence External Review Authority (PERA) was established by Council Ordinance in 2002 to provide for a system of civilian oversight for the Providence Police Department. PERA investigates and conducts hearings concerning allegations of misconduct on the part of police officers.  The Special Committee to Study PERA, created in April 2009, was charged with examining, reviewing, and making amendments and/or changes to PERA’s operating budget, personnel, and regulations, as well as to the PERA ordinance.