Recent events in Providence, RI demonstrate both how a sustained grassroots campaign can create opportunities for civil rights and civil liberties, and also how quickly those opportunities can be derailed by institutional actors. While the latest City Council decision delayed reform efforts and frustrated community members, policymakers will return in a few weeks to the crucial questions they deferred.

The Council’s April 27 vote effectively placed on hold a wide-ranging reform measure it had unanimously supported only a week before.

After three years of advocacy uniting communities across Providence, the City Council on April 20 voted unanimously to adopt a set of groundbreaking protections for civil rights and civil liberties, including digital civil liberties. The proposed Community Safety Act (CSA) would, among other things, require police to justify any instance of targeted electronic surveillance, protect the rights of residents to observe and record police activities, and ensure due process protections for individuals otherwise arbitrarily included in gang databases.

The CSA has been championed by a broad local coalition, including Rhode Island Rights, a member of the Electronic Frontier Alliance.

Within a week of its April 20 vote, however, increasingly strident objections by the local police union drove the Council to reverse itself on April 27, deciding by a vote of 9-5 to table the ordinance until June 1. The Council’s April 27 vote effectively placed on hold a wide-ranging reform measure it had unanimously supported only a week before, deferring to forthcoming recommendations by a working group created by the Council to suggest potential amendments.

A letter from the Providence Fraternal Order of Police to the Council the day before the April 27 vote reveals the chasm separating the perspectives of residents responding to the needs of communities. It reflects an attitude of entitlement among public safety officials who seem to view civil rights and civil liberties as impediments to their work, rather then the defining cornerstones of the society they pledge themselves to serve and protect.

In the letter, the executive board of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police express incredulity at the prospect that community members would feel the need to be kept safe from police, overlooking years of continuing controversy inflamed by recurring incidents of arbitrary and unaccountable police violence across the country. 

As a matter of unfortunate fact, law-abiding Americans do increasingly feel the need to be kept safe from police. That’s why tens of thousands have taken to the streets responding to incidents of police violence. That’s also why local legislators around the country are taking action to ensure transparency and enable civilian oversight of police, impose limits on the use of surveillance devices, and refine procedures for seemingly "routine" searches to buttress fundamental constitutional protections that have been widely eroded in practice.

Negotiations with the working group will continue over the course of this month, until the Council revisits the CSA and the working group's recommendations on June 1. Providence community members will discover then whether their elected leaders answer to them, or instead to groups representing the police. For his part, Mayor Jorge Elorza has reiterated his intent to sign the proposed Community Safety Act into law should the Council ultimately stand by its prior decision.