R.I. mayor appoints civilian to major's post; Black police association objects
"This appointment of an unqualified person will have no credibility with the Command Staff or rank and file," said NABLEO's chairman
By Donita Naylor
The Providence Journal
PROVIDENCE — The decision to give a civilian the rank of major in the Providence Police Department was announced on the Friday before a holiday weekend, but it drew criticism within minutes from the City Council president, and on Monday from the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.
Mayor Jorge O. Elorza joined with Commissioner of Public Safety Steven M. Paré and Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr., chief of police, on Friday in announcing the promotions of two Providence police captains to major and the appointment of a civilian, Providence Director of Recreation Michael Stephens, as a third major.
Stephens, who has worked for the city for 24 years, since 2013 in the recreation department and been involved in coaching and forming youth sports leagues, has built the community's trust by offering summer camps, opening recreation centers and forming basketball leagues. He has never been a police officer. As a civilian, the announcement said, he will command the Police Department's first Community Relations and Diversion Services post at the level of major.
Minutes after Friday's announcement, Council President John Igliozzi released a statement praising the creation of the new police position and credited himself and the council for funding it for fiscal 2022. Stephens, he said, has "admirable qualifications for a civilian community-police liaison position but was not qualified "for the position of Major within the Providence Police Department's command structure, particularly as many other trained officers have worked hard to move up the ranks within our police force."
Igliozzi offered to work with Elorza on changing the name and scope of the position to "Public Safety Community-Police Liaison. This will resolve any confusion about roles and make clear that this is a civilian position."
Elorza was quoted in Friday's announcement saying Stephens "has always prioritized community-building on behalf of the City of Providence."
The mayor said that in the role of major, Stephens "will continue to serve as a relationship-builder, strengthening and expanding the connections between our community and the police department while bringing the voice of the community to the highest levels of leadership within the department."
On Monday, the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers disagreed publicly in a statement released by its national chairman, Charles P. Wilson, a retired lieutenant from Rhode Island.
Wilson said a civilian lacking police experience is not qualified for what he said was the job description, of supervising the Police Training Bureau and Training Academy, promotions and testing candidates for sergeant, lieutenant, and captain, and of overseeing recruitment, selection, retention and training of recruits. He will be in charge of developing and putting into practice a system for responding to certain police calls with mental health workers and counseling supports instead of armed officers. Overall, he'll be responsible for building and strengthening trust and respect within the community.
Acknowledging that Stephens has years of experience in community relations and will not wear a police uniform or carry a firearm, Wilson said "his lack of any relevant law enforcement experience or background make him unqualified to hold a law enforcement ranking position which entitles him to direct the activities of sworn police personnel."
The choice of Stephens, Wilson wrote, "not only shows a total lack of consideration, respect and demeaning of the qualifications of those officers of color within the Rhode Island law enforcement community who were candidates for this position, but also calls to question the judgment of Mayor Elorza in making administrative decisions that ultimately effect public safety.
"While we fully recognize Mr. Stephens capabilities as a community organizer and someone who has worked to build bridges between the community and police for a number of years, this appointment of an unqualified person will have no credibility with the Command Staff or rank and file, and ultimately will continue to mean that there will still be no qualified African American law enforcement officer with a voice at the top of the Providence Police Department. "
Wilson's statement urged the mayor to accept Igliozzi's idea of changing Stephens from a major to a community-police liaison, and went a step further, saying the police position should be reposted "for a candidate with more credible qualifications."
Asked to respond to Wilson's certainty that Stephens is unqualified and won't be able to do the job and that appointing him means Providence police are still without an African American officer in the highest ranks, Public Safety Commissioner Paré responded Monday by text, saying:
"I have not seen or read the release from NABLEO. Mr. Stephens was selected after an application and an interview process. He was born and raised in the City and is well respected in the community and has positively impacted generations of young men and women. His accomplishments over his lifetime and the skills that he will bring to this community relations position will be beneficial to the community and to public safety in Providence and the region. Mr. Stephens brings energy, vision and passion. He cares deeply about this community and has a keen understanding of public safety. We look forward to bringing Mr. Stephens on board to the Providence Police Department."
The original announcement said the formal swearing in and promotion ceremony for the three new majors, Stephens, Kevin Lanni and Henry Remolina, will be scheduled in the next several weeks.